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11 teachers administering polio vaccine in Pakistani tribal area are abducted

A health worker administers a polio vaccine to a Pakistani child near the Afghan border in Chaman, Pakistan, on Saturday during a three-day nationwide vaccination campaign to eradicate polio. Akhter Gulfam / EPA

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Pakistani authorities on Saturday said that 11 schoolteachers who were administering polio vaccines to children in northwest Pakistan had been kidnapped by militants. 

 “These schoolteachers were sent to Sepah village in the Bara subdivision of Khyber tribal region to provide polio vaccines to the children,” said an official of the administration, Shamsher Khan.

“Some armed militants came there, snatched them their vaccine boxes, held them hostage on gunpoint and taken to an unknown location.”

Pakistani public health and security officials said the teachers were kidnapped on Thursday but authorities only learned of the abduction on Saturday from local tribesmen. 

Khan said the schoolteachers were working as volunteers during the polio campaign.

“There has been strong resistance against polio vaccines in this area,” Khan said. “These teachers went there after five years to vaccine children. According to our reports they had finished their job and were about to return when held hostage by the militants.”

Khan said the militants are affiliated with Commander Mangal Bagh, whose Pakistan Taliban-affiliated group Lashkar-e-Islam largely controls the area.

He said Mangal Bagh and his fighters opposing polio vaccination for children, fearing it is a Western ploy to render their males infertile.

“They don't allow polio teams to enter their areas of control and vaccinate children," the government official said.

A senior member of the health directorate in Peshawar, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his office was seeking to negotiate the teachers’ release.

“We are now sending tribal elders to secure their release, as the government has no writ there,” he said.

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He said the teachers were working at the Hira Public School Bara, a public-private school.

“They belonged to the same area that’s why they were given the task to vaccinate children as government employees can’t enter there,” he said.

 The official said 14 polio cases have been reported in the Bara subdivision this year due to inability of the polio vaccination teams to reach children there.

“There are a number of reasons polio teams cannot go there, including militants, refusals and propaganda against vaccination by religious clerics,” he said.

Pakistan is considered one of the difficult countries for polio workers due to growing misconception about polio vaccine and increasing refusals by parents to vaccinate their kids. According to the World Health Organization, 24 polio workers have been killed this year in attacks on vaccination teams.

Reuters contributed to this report.