Red Cross to resume but scale back ops in Pakistan

Shaheena Bibi sits with her brothers in a make-shift tent in suburbs of Islamabad, Pakistan on Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/B.K. Bangash)

GENEVA - The Red Cross plans to resume some of the work that it suspended in Pakistan but on a vastly smaller scale after the killing of a British nurse it employed, officials said Tuesday.

After a major internal review, the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross said it has decided to continue its work in Pakistan but to more than halve its staff, cease visiting detainees and curtail operations that will have major impacts throughout the nation.

Jacques de Maio, the ICRC's head of operations for South Asia, told The Associated Press that his organization will focus almost exclusively on health care for Pakistanis, particularly those severely wounded in fighting.

Though the review was prompted by the April 2012 slaying of Khalil Rasjed Dale in Quetta, Pakistan, it extended to factors that went well beyond safety and looked at whether all of the Red Cross operations could be justified, he said.

As a result, the ICRC plans to reduce its operations from 1,256 staff in 10 offices to about 500 in two offices. Most of the staff are Pakistanis, and the expatriates will be cut from 126 to about 40, said de Maio.

The organization had shut most of its operations due to the killing of Dale, 60, a British Red Cross worker who served as a health program manager. His slaying stunned the organization and its workers. Police said his throat was slit and a note attached to his body said he was killed because no ransom was paid.

"It was a massive blow" to the ICRC, de Maio said.

Dale's dumped body was found beheaded on April 29 close to the southwestern city of Quetta, where the veteran aid worker had been kidnapped in January. No arrests have been made.

Islamist militants, separatist gangs and criminals with links to both have been accused of previous kidnappings in Baluchistan, a poor province close to the Afghanistan border where Pakistan's government has little control.

The ICRC has been helping victims of violence and natural disaster in Pakistan since 1947. De Maio says the capacity of the Red Cross to respond to man-made disasters and displacement of people due to armed violence will be affected. "We are terminating all relief programs in parts of the country which are extremely vulnerable to insecurity from violence but also natural disasters such as floods," he said.

Paul Castella, head of ICRC's delegation in Islamabad, said the organization will continue to work in Pakistan only if conditions are adequate. ICRC will co-ordinate with Pakistan authorities to reopen its surgical hospital in Peshawar, he said, but the ICRC has decided to keep operations closed in the provinces of Khyber, Pukhtunkhwa and Sindh.

Pakistan's U.N. mission in Geneva had no immediate comment Tuesday.

Another one of the biggest consequences of the Red Cross pullback will be hard to measure.

That involves Red Cross visits to Pakistan's civilian and military facilities, where tens of thousands of detainees are held, among them many Pakistanis and Afghans. The organization's neutrality and its global stature and duty as the arbiter of the rules of war lend it a unique role in the monitoring of prison conditions worldwide.

Among the facilities are an unknown number of Pakistan's "missing" — people who have been seized by security forces for months or years and are never brought to trial, their families never informed of their fate.

Many of the men are presumed to be suspected Islamist militants, swept up in a post-Sept. 11, 2001, crackdown supported by the United States. Some are alleged to have been killed or tortured in custody.

Former President Pervez Musharraf wrote in his memoir in 2006 that Pakistani security forces had captured 689 terrorists and handed over 369 to the United States. Musharraf, who allied Pakistan with Washington after 2001, said that action earned the country millions of dollars in bounties. Many wound up at the U.S. detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, and the Red Cross had contacted the relatives of Pakistanis held at the camp.