ISLAMABAD, Sept 6: Refusal by the interior ministry to extend visas of six expatriates working for Save the Children has caused concern among international non-government organisations, especially the donor agencies.
Save the Children was part of an alliance of about 200 international non-governmental organisations which has expressed reservations over the alleged CIA hand in a vaccination campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, even writing a letter to Gen David Petraeus, the CIA chief, in March.
The organisation’s country director David Wright also spoke on the issue with Dawn in March: “Save the Children has helped hundreds of thousands of children and families in Pakistan over the past 30 years, but our ability to continue this important work has been seriously undermined by the CIA’s use of humanitarian activity as a cover for their intelligence gathering.”
The officials of Save the Children also raised similar concerns while talking to Dawn from their international headquarters.
“It was mainly because of erroneous reporting of private television channel which aired a video by declaring an alleged connection of Save the Children with Dr Shakil Afridi’s alleged fake campaign to get the samples of Osama bin Laden,” a senior official of the Save the Children (STC) told Dawn.
The official explained that a programme was aired on Wednesday night by a Pakistani private television channel showing an alleged link of STC with the fake vaccination campaign of Dr Afridi. “Completely erroneous and baseless,” asserted the official.
The official insisted: “We have never hired Dr Afridi nor have we paid him any amount for any of his works, besides Save the Children has no connection at all with this gentleman [Dr Afridi] at any stage or any level.”
She said: “The allegations are baseless and have no authentic value; instead it will only damage the humanitarian work being done on the ground by the international staff members for the people of Pakistan, specifically the children.”
Asked to comment over the nationalities of these officials, the STC official could not share the nationalities of the expatriates, saying: “For security reasons we can’t share the nationalities of these officials.”The international NGO senior official added that STC is assisting over seven million children across Pakistan.
The funding for the international NGO is coming from international donors since it is reaching out to the poorest of the poor segments of society in most deprived parts of the country.
Asked to comment about the visa extension issue of their officials, she said: “We have taken up the matter with the interior ministry of Pakistan and are confident that the matter will be addressed in next 24 hours.”
Earlier in the day, according to an official, the interior ministry refused to extend the visas of international staff members.
“The interior ministry has refused to extend the visas but no official comment was made by the interior ministry nor any handout was shared with the media on the current matter,” said the government official.
A western diplomat said that for privacy reasons the nationality of the expatriates was not shared with the media.
AFP adds: Islamabad has ordered all foreigners working for Save the Children to leave Pakistan within four weeks in the wake of accusations linking the aid agency to a fake vaccination programme used in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
Save the Children said it had received no explanation for the order, under which its six expatriate staff have been told to leave within four weeks.
But a Pakistan intelligence report has linked the aid agency to Pakistani doctor Shakeel Afridi, who the CIA allegedly used to carry out a fake vaccination programme as they searched for the Al Qaeda chief.
“Earlier this week we got a call from special branch instructing us to send back all expatriate staff,” Save the Children spokesman Ghulam Qadir said. “There were no reasons given. We are working with the government to comply with the instructions.” He said the agency would continue to operate in Pakistan with its 2,000 staff, serving more than seven million children.
And he strongly denied allegations that Afridi was introduced to the CIA through Save the Children.
“On Shakeel Afridi, our stand is very clear that there is absolutely no truth in it. There is no concrete proof to these allegations,” Qadir said.