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Taliban says no to polio vaccination in Pak

Islamabad: In another setback to Pakistan`s efforts to eradicate polio, the Taliban has banned a vaccination campaign in the restive South Waziristan region till the US halts its drone strikes in the tribal belt, a bizarre diktat that will affect 80,000 children. A pamphlet distributed by the Mullah Nazir faction of Taliban yesterday in Wana, the main town of South Waziristan Agency, claimed Western powers were running a spy network in the area in the guise of the vaccination campaign.

The pamphlet cited the case of Shakeel Afridi, the doctor arrested by Pakistani authorities for conducting a fake vaccination campaign to help the CIA track Osama bin Laden before he was killed in Abbottabad last year. Mohammad Rafiq, the UNICEF`s focal person for Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas, said an estimated 80,000 children would suffer if the anti-polio campaign was stopped in South Waziristan.

Earlier, another Taliban faction led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur banned the polio vaccination campaign in North Waziristan Agency. He too said the ban would remain in place as long as US drone attacks continued. The pamphlet distributed in South Waziristan compared polio drops to "sugar-coated poison" and claimed Western powers had never been loyal to Muslims. "If they (Western powers) were so sincere with Muslims, then why did they bomb us so mercilessly," it said.

The pamphlet referred to US sanctions on Saddam Hussein`s regime and claimed two million Iraqi children had suffered due to lack of medicines in the 1990s. It further claimed that drone strikes had a psychological effect on children in the tribal belt. "On the one hand, they are killing innocent children in drone strikes, while on the other hand they are saving their lives by vaccinating them…it`s like a wolf in sheep`s clothing," the pamphlet said.

The decision to ban the polio vaccination was taken by a shura or council of militants in North Waziristan, the pamphlet said. It warned all polio teams to end their campaign or to face the consequences. The Taliban further asked the local administration to stay away from the immunisation drive. A local resident told The Express Tribune that the pamphlet directed parents to avoid getting their children vaccinated as long as drone strikes continued in Waziristan.

If the Taliban continued to block the vaccination campaign, the government will be unable to immunise 241,000 children, including 161,000 in North Waziristan and 80,000 in South Waziristan, during a three-day anti-polio campaign scheduled to begin on July 17. Like North Waziristan, South Waziristan recorded one polio case this year. UNICEF official Mohammad Rafiq said Pakistan had recorded 22 polio cases this year, including 11 in the tribal areas.

Nine of those cases were registered in Khyber Agency. The unsatisfactory performance of the anti-polio campaign in northwest Pakistan has been blamed on poor law and order, threats from militants, corruption and lack of interest among authorities. The federal government has expressed concern over the ban on the anti-polio campaign and urged Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Governor Masood Kausar to open a dialogue with militant groups for resuming the vaccination drive.

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