ISLAMABAD – The Pakistani government has ordered foreign staff members of Save the Children to leave the country, a spokesman for the international aid group said.
The group has recently come under Pakistani government scrutiny because of reports that it helped facilitate meetings between the U.S. and a doctor who allegedly helped hunt down Osama bin Laden, a charge which the group has vehemently denied. The expulsion order comes among heightened suspicion of foreigners in Pakistan in the aftermath of the al-Qaida leader's killing.
Ghulam Qadri said Thursday that the Ministry of Interior informed the organization earlier this week that its six foreign staffers would have to leave the country within two weeks, although they have since been able to extend the deadline. He did not specify the new date.
Save the Children has about 2,000 Pakistani employees across the country, who will continue to work despite the expulsion.
He said the ministry gave no reason for the expulsion: "We are working with the government to find out the details for this action." The ministry could not be reached for comment.
U.S. State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. was very concerned about the development and has asked the Pakistani government to allow Save the Children to continue its work.
"Independent NGOs are among the central building blocks of healthy democracies," Ventrell told reporters in Washington. "Pakistan is another country we urge to help create an environment in which they can operate productively."
After the May 2011 American raid that killed bin Laden, Pakistan arrested Shakil Afridi, the doctor who allegedly helped the United States track down the al-Qaida leader. Afridi was said to have run a fake vaccination program for the CIA to collect DNA and try to verify bin Laden's presence at the compound in Abbottabad where U.S. commandos found and killed him.
Afridi was later convicted and sentenced to 33 years for high treason. The U.S. has been pushing for his release and praised his actions but in Pakistan he is viewed with disdain by many, including security officials for helping a foreign intelligence agency operate within its borders.
In the wake of Afridi's arrest Pakistani officials have become increasingly suspicious of groups with international ties, and many aid groups have reported that it is becoming more difficult to obtain visas.
A lawyer for the doctor, Samiullah Khan, said Pakistani investigators in a report concluded that Afridi met with some foreigners in connection with the vaccination drive, including someone from Save the Children in Islamabad. Khan says his client denies the charges and that he is innocent.
Qadri said there's no evidence suggesting that it worked with Afridi and that the aid group has already given the government all the information it has asked for as part of its investigation.
Qadri said he expects that the foreign staffers will have to leave but said they may be able to return at a future date.
The expulsion was first reported by the British newspaper The Guardian.
Save the Children is an international aid group with operations in more than 50 countries around the world that aims to improve the lives of children. The group has been working in Pakistan since 1979, according to its website. Recently it has been helping some of the roughly 250,000 people who have fled fighting in Pakistan's Khyber agency, a tribal area that borders Afghanistan.
On the Internet: http://www.savethechildren.org
Rebecca Santana can be reached at http://twitter.com/ruskygal
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad and Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.