GUNMEN have shot dead six health workers in Pakistan at the start of a polio vaccination drive, in a spree of apparently co-ordinated attacks on the nationwide medical campaign.
Officials were forced to halt the three-day vaccination programme in Karachi after four women were shot dead in the city in less than an hour.
The assassinations follow a Taliban ban on immunisations in the tribal region of Waziristan. The militants say the ban is in protest against drone strikes and also allege that the immunisation campaign is a cover for spying.
The four women were killed a day after a man working on a World Health Organisation project was shot dead in the city.
A sixth worker, also a woman, was killed in the north-western city of Peshawar.
Shahid Hayat, a police commander in Karachi, blamed "militants who issued a fatwa against polio vaccination in the past" for the shootings. "They were fired upon by unidentified gunmen who rode away on motorcycles," he said.
Government health officials have warned that 250,000 children are at risk from polio in Waziristan if the vaccinations are not carried out.
Taliban militants allege the programme is a cover for espionage, pointing to the CIA's use of a hepatitis campaign during the hunt for Osama bin Laden. A Pakistani doctor used the ruse in an attempt to extract blood from children living in Abbottabad at the suspected home of the al-Qa'ida leader in order to check whether it matched the DNA of other Bin Laden family members.
It was not immediately clear if all the attacks yesterday were linked to the vaccination campaign.
Matthew Coleman, a spokesman for the United Nations Children's Fund, said some had occurred in areas notorious for gun crime, but added the situation was worrying.
"We're concerned for the safety of front-line workers. They are the true heroes," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)