MIR ALI, Pakistan (AP) — The Taliban hinted Thursday they may launch attacks against foreigners helping Pakistan respond to the worst floods in the country’s history, saying their presence was “unacceptable.” The United Nations said it would not be deterred by violent threats.
The militant group has attacked aid workers in the country before, and an outbreak of violence could complicate a relief effort that has already struggled to reach the 8 million people who are in need of emergency assistance.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq claimed the U.S. and other countries that have pledged support are not really focused on providing aid to flood victims but had other motives he did not specify.
“Behind the scenes they have certain intentions, but on the face they are talking of relief and help,” Mr. Tariq told the Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. “No relief is reaching the affected people, and when the victims are not receiving help, then this horde of foreigners is not acceptable to us at all.”
He strongly hinted that the militants could resort to violence, saying “when we say something is unacceptable to us, one can draw one’s own conclusion.”
Foreign countries have pledged nearly $800 million and provided aid workers to help Pakistan cope with floods that began almost a month ago with the onset of the monsoon and have ravaged a massive swath of Pakistan, from the mountainous north to its agricultural heartland.
The U.S. military has also stepped in to help, flying helicopters that have evacuated flood victims and delivered relief supplies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the northwest province that was hit hardest by the floods.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington is taking the threat of attacks by militants seriously.
“We have information of the potential targeting of foreign relief workers in Pakistan, as well as government ministries,” Mr. Crowley told reporters in Washington, adding, “It just underscores the bankrupt vision that these extremists have and we are conscious of that threat.”
It is not clear how many foreigners are operating on the ground in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which borders Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal area where the Pakistani Taliban are strongest. Many aid organizations involved in the relief effort have been in Pakistan for years and use networks of locals in the most dangerous areas.
The United Nations said Thursday that the group won’t let violent threats deter its relief effort.
“There is a lot of work ahead and millions of people who need our assistance,” said Maurizio Giulano, spokesman for the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “We would find it inhumane for someone to target us and our work, effectively harming the millions of people whose lives we strive to save.”
The Pakistani Taliban carried out a suicide attack against the office of the U.N.’s World Food Program in Islamabad last October, killing five staffers. In March, militants armed with assault rifles and a homemade bomb attacked the offices of a U.S.-based Christian aid group helping earthquake survivors in northwestern Pakistan, killing six Pakistani employees.
Violence has been relatively low in the country since the floods hit, but three bomb attacks in northwestern Pakistan on Monday killed at least 36 people.
While increased Taliban attacks would complicate the flood relief effort, the group could also risk backlash from the millions of victims who have lost everything and are desperate to receive food and shelter.