Gunmen shot and killed an American as he was traveling to work for a U.S.-funded aid program aimed at chipping away support for al-Qaida and Taliban militants in Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.
Stephen Vance was killed along with his Pakistani driver in an upscale neighborhood of Peshawar, a sprawling and increasingly lawless city on the eastern edge of northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
While there was no claim of responsibility, suspicion fell on Taliban- and al-Qaida-linked militants under fire from Pakistani military operations in the tribal areas as well as a surge in unilateral U.S. missile attacks on the region.
The border region is a possible hiding place for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri. Militants have found a safe haven there, using it as a staging ground for attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan as well as within Pakistan.
Vance worked for CHF International, a U.S.-based aid group that was implementing American government-funded schemes to pump $750 million over five years into developing basic infrastructure such as wells and better clinics and roads in the impoverished tribal areas — which count among the least-developed regions on earth.
CHF International is also involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ambush was the latest in a string of attacks targeting foreigners in Pakistan.
"It seems to be a sort of reprisal against the policies of the Pakistani government, which is considered to be supportive of the U.S. grand plan, as they (militants) see it," said Khalid Aziz, a former top provincial administrator now advising the government on development work in the northwest.
Police said Vance was attacked as he was being driven from his home to his office in University Town, an upscale area of Peshawar where a top U.S. diplomat was attacked just a few months ago.
The assailants blocked the vehicle in a narrow lane with their own car, then opened fire at close range with automatic weapons, killing both Vance and his Pakistani driver, said a Western aid worker in Peshawar. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Calls to CHF International's headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. went unanswered.
Widespread bombings, violence
Vance's killing was a blow to Western and Pakistani officials who hope to counter the spread of Islamic extremism in Pakistan's border badlands by delivering economic assistance.
In early 2007, the U.S. government pledged $750 million over five years for the effort and those projects are only now getting under way — a delay diplomats in Islamabad blame on Pakistani government inefficiency as well as poor security.
Peshawar, the regional capital located just outside the tribal areas, has not been spared the suicide bombings and shootings that are plaguing much of the region. But until recently it was considered relatively safe for foreigners.
If Peshawar is deemed off-limits for foreign development experts, officials will have to scramble to find qualified and experienced Pakistanis able to ensure that the huge sums of American development money are well spent.
'Fear in people's minds'
In August, Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in northwestern Pakistan, survived a gun attack on her armored vehicle in University Town.
"There is some fear in people's minds, especially among the foreigners, about whether it is worthwhile staying here and undertaking these works," Aziz said.
But the head of a Western aid group in Pakistan said it would be worse if Vance had been targeted simply for working on a Western-funded project because it would imply that even local staff involved in such work were at serious risk.
He said his organization would try to continue its long-standing work in the region but requested that he and his group not be identified to avoid drawing the attention of militants.
In other violence Wednesday, a suicide car bomber killed three soldiers outside a school in the northwestern village of Subhan Khwar, 22 miles north of Peshawar. No students were inside at the time.