Nirupama Subramanian

Uncertainty over relief programme in NWFP

ISLAMABAD: The suicide bombing at a five-star hotel in Peshawar that claimed the lives of 16 people including two U.N. officials has cast a pall of gloom and uncertainty over the ongoing humanitarian assistance programme in the North-West Frontier Province for the millions of people displaced by the anti-Taliban military operations in Swat.

A UNHCR official, Aleksandar Vorkapic from Serbia, and a UNICEF official, Perseveranda So of the Philippines who headed the education wing of the agency in Islamabad, were among those killed in Tuesday’s blast at the city’s Hotel Pearl Continental. Police said they had pulled out five bodies overnight from the debris of the bombing. Over 50 people were injured, among them three foreigners including a German U.N. volunteer.

The hotel was used frequently by expatriates and government officials. No one has claimed responsibility for the bombing but the NWFP government pointed the finger at the Taliban, against whom the military is conducting operations in Swat, and now, also in the Bannu district of the province.

On Wednesday, all U.N. agencies evacuated their staff from Peshawar. Over 20 U.N. officials were based in Peshawar and travelled daily to the camps for displaced people, which are within easy reach of the NWFP capital city.

But U.N. Resident Coordinator in Pakistan, Fikret Akcura who said he “strongly condemn[ed]” the attack, also expressed “determine[ation] to continue our humanitarian support to over two millions Pakistani citizens who have been affected by the ongoing displacement crises.”

It is clear though that the U.N. also cannot ignore the security of its employees, and is in the unhappy position of trying to balance this aspect with its duties in Pakistan.

In a message ,U.N. Refugees High Commissioner Antonio Guterres said he joined Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in condemning the attack, “which no cause can justify.”

“Humanitarian workers around the world are coming under increasing attack and it is the poor, the uprooted and the vulnerable who will suffer the most by their loss.

“Aleksandar Vorkapic was the second UNHCR staff member to be killed in less than five months in Pakistan, where hundreds of thousands of people depend on UNHCR assistance. Now, once again, we are forced to ask ourselves how we can meet their urgent needs while ensuring the safety of our own humanitarian staff? It is a truly terrible dilemma.”

In February, the UNHCR lost a Pakistani national employed as a driver during the abduction of its Quetta representative John Solecki.

UNICEF condemned the bombing as “reprehensible and unacceptable” and said it was “greatly saddened” by the death of Ms. So. “She was in Peshawar, a dangerous and difficult environment, helping implement programmes to assist girls in gaining access to the education they so desperately need. She will be greatly missed,” according to a statement from UNICEF.

The World Food Programme, which was distributing food rations to the displaced at IDP camps and other hubs for the displaced, said for security reasons it had put off by a further 24 hours resumption of its work, suspended four days before the bombing to enable the government to update its registration of the displaced.

Two WFP staffers are among the injured and receiving treatment in a hospital in Islamabad, the U.N. agency said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Geo TV played footage of the explosives-packed truck entering the gates of the hotel. The footage first shows a car being allowed to enter. As the gates were opened for the car, there is what appears to be firing at the security guards, and the truck speeds in behind the car. The explosion follows seconds later. It is unclear if the firing came from the car or from the truck.

The bombing reduced a portion of the hotel to rubble. Almost all the rooms in the four-storeyed hotel suffered some damage due to the impact, but most of its rooms were unoccupied. Around 50 cars in the parking lot were destroyed, and some of the dead are believed to be drivers waiting in the parked cars.