Seven aid workers shot dead near Islamabad

Gunmen have ambushed and shot dead six Pakistani women aid workers and a male doctor – a month after nine polio vaccination workers were killed.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan // Six women and a man working for a health-education charity in north-west Pakistan were shot dead yesterday as they returned home from a community centre.

Police said they were investigating whether there was any link to the Taliban or other militants, who have been blamed for other attacks on charity workers and health education projects in particular.

The attack happened about 65 kilometres from the capital in the Swabi district. The victims were all Pakistanis and worked for a local charity, Ujalla, that runs health education classes and provides health visitors.

Five of the women were teachers. The sixth was a health worker and the man worked as a health technician, officials said.

They were being driven home from the village community centre when they were attacked, said Abdul Rashid Khan, the Swabi police chief. "Four men came on two motorbikes," he said. "They opened fire to the right and left of the van and fled."

Police said the women were were between 20 and 35 years old and the man was 52.

Doctor Mohammad Sheerin, of the local Bacha Khan medical complex, said another man had been critically wounded and was evacuated to the northwestern city of Peshawar.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, near a junction of the motorway that connects the northwestern city of Peshawar to the eastern city of Lahore. Police said the motive was under investigation.

Charity workers condemned the attack and called for protection.

"Schools and NGOs have been threatened in the recent past," said Rooh ul-Amin, who heads an umbrella organisation of charities in Swabi. "Several government schools had been bombed in the last several months."

Eight months ago, he added, the guesthouse where he receives visitors was bombed and another bomb was found near his office four months ago.

Idrees Kamal, the coordinator of Pakhtunkhwa Civil Society Network, demanded that the killers be arrested, and called for protection and compensation.

Last month, nine polio vaccination workers were shot dead during a string of attacks in Karachi and north-west Pakistan.

Those killings prompted the UN children's agency and the World Health Organisation to suspend work on polio campaigns in the country.

Last month, a Swedish charity worker died after she was shot in the chest in Lahore, where she worked for the US-founded Full Gospel Assemblies, which runs charities including a technical training institute and adult literacy centre.

In August 2011, US development worker Warren Weinstein was kidnapped after gunmen tricked their way into his Lahore home. Pakistani officials believe he is being held by Al Qaeda and Taliban extremists in Pakistan's lawless north-west.

And in April last year, a British Muslim Red Cross worker was beheaded after being kidnapped in the southwestern city of Quetta.

Pakistan has been battling a home-grown Taliban insurgency for five years, as well as a separatist Baluch uprising in the south-west.

It also suffers from routine attacks blamed on a series of hardline Islamist factions.