ISLAMABAD, 9 May 2007 (IRIN) - The United Nations has temporarily suspended its activities - and closed its offices - for two weeks in quake-affected Bagh sub-district in Pakistani-administered Kashmir following a spate of security incidents involving members of the humanitarian community.
The move follows similar measures taken by international NGOs working in the area.
"This is a temporary measure to ensure the safety and security of our staff on the ground and we are working closely with the government and local communities to resolve the matter," Dr France Donnay, acting UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan, told IRIN in Islamabad, on Wednesday.
The move follows an escalation of security incidents in Bagh, an isolated rural and conservative community in Pakistani-administered Kashmir badly damaged in the 8 October 2005 earthquake.
More than 80,000 people were killed and thousands more injured in the country's north when the 6.7 magnitude quake ripped through Pakistani-administered Kashmir and the country's North West Frontier Province (NWFP), leaving more than 3.5 million people homeless.
Tensions have mounted in recent weeks after a driver with Relief International was beaten up in April.
On 1 May, a driver of a vehicle rented by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) and bearing UN markings, was beaten up. On the same day two local staff members working for the National Commission for Human Development, a local NGO, were beaten up, and two local female staff members working for the American Refugee Committee (ARC) who accompanied them were arrested.
"They were arrested for having a picnic in a public area while being unmarried," Louise Paterson, the country director for ARC in Islamabad, told IRIN, describing the incident as a longstanding issue with the employment of female staff.
A large demonstration against NGOs took place on Friday in Bagh city, but there were no violent incidents, damage or injuries, she added.
On Sunday, the Awami Action Forum, a coalition of religious groups led by a number of local religious leaders, threatened to stop any UN or NGO vehicle carrying female passengers and attack that vehicle, as well as the offices and compounds where the humanitarian workers lived or worked, according to Paterson.
The situation intensified further on Monday when the private house of a local UN staff member was torched.
A number of UN agencies operate in the Bagh district, including UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, UN Habitat, as well as a number of international NGOs, including ActionAid, ARC, Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), Islamic Relief, Mercy Corps, Relief International and Save the Children.
"It is very sad that a handful of people who fail to understand the true value of humanitarian aid to their communities, or the responsible way in which relief organisations are working in Bagh, cause additional hardship," Andy Goss, programme field-coordinator of ADRA said. ADRA is one of a number of NGOs that has suspended its operations in the area.
"This is ADRA's main concern; though clearly, as a responsible organization, it has to safeguard its own staff from the risk of attack," Goss said, adding: "However, when violence occurs there is a breakdown of communication and trust. It's very sad."
According to a statement issued by the UN on Wednesday, while operations would be suspended for the next two weeks in Bagh sub-district, emergency services would continue.