Pak tribal supports Taliban ban on polio vaccinations

Islamabad: A tribal jirga in the restive North Waziristan region of Pakistan has endorsed a Taliban ban on polio vaccinations, linking the lifting of the ban to the ending of US drone strikes in the area, according to a media report today. Following negotiations with officials of the local political administration, the jirga yesterday linked the immunisation campaign to an end to US drone strikes in the tribal belt.

"Polio vaccination will be banned until drone attacks are stopped," tribal elder Qadir Khan told a gathering of over 120 elders and religious scholars in Miranshah, the main town of North Waziristan. Officials had pinned their last hopes of inoculating children in North Waziristan on talks with the tribesmen, which were delayed till yesterday, the last day of a nationwide anti-polio campaign. North Waziristan administrator Siraj Ahmed Khan told The Express Tribune that he had sought to convince the tribesmen to allow the vaccinations.

"Polio is rampant in tribal areas and the government desires to prevent its spread," Khan told the meeting. He informed the jirga that the campaign was in the interest of the tribal people and that funds for development works could be affected if the ban is not lifted. The tribal elders told Khan that US drone strikes were a concern for both the Taliban and the tribesmen.

"Drones martyr so many children, while polio afflicts one or two out of hundreds of thousands," tribal elder Maamoor Khan was quoted as saying. Pakistani officials have estimated that 240,000 children in North and South Waziristan will not be covered by the polio campaign due to a ban imposed by two powerful Taliban factions.

The jirga assured administrator Siraj Ahmed Khan that the vaccination would resume if the government halted the drone strikes and agreed to pass a message in this regard to Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who leads the powerful local Taliban `shura` or council. Religious scholar Maulana Gull Salim said a response from the Taliban could be expected soon and that the grand jirga of North Waziristan will try to resolve the issue through negotiations.

In a related development, hundreds of tribal people boycotted polio vaccinations in protest against power cuts in Drazinda village. Local elders held a jirga in Drazinda and decided to "kick out" polio teams from Dera Ismail Khan. Tribal elder Malik Yonus Khan said local residents had no other reservations about the campaign.

The Taliban have described the anti-polio campaign as a cover for spying by the US and banned vaccinations in North and South Waziristan, risking the health of 240,000 children. Officials said another 120,000 children in Khyber Agency too were at risk of not being covered by the campaign due to fighting between security forces and militants.