PESHAWAR, Pakistan — Four women who ran empowerment workshops were gunned down Monday in a volatile area of Pakistan that was once a base for the Taliban, local police and the women's employer said.
The team was hired by Bravo College of Technology in Peshawar to help local women gain vocational skills such as sewing in North Waziristan, said Fayaz Khan, the chief executive of the college.
“Is this the way to give back to someone for the hard work they were doing for the poor?” Khan said by telephone. “Their role was tremendous for the local community.”
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The women were shot in an apparent targeted attack as they passed through a deserted village near the town of Mirali in North Waziristan tribal district, police chief Shafiullah Gandapur told NBC News.
North Waziristan runs along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan and served as a base for the Pakistani Taliban and other militants, including Al Qaeda, until 2014, when the army said it cleared the region of insurgents.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
The incident comes amid an uptick in attacks claimed by the Pakistani Taliban in the deeply conservative area in recent months and amid concern that the insurgents may be regrouping.
“North Waziristan tribal district has suffered badly from militancy for a long time," Gandapur said also by telephone. "The security situation has improved but still we face a lot of problems.”
The Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, are separate from the Afghan Taliban but have a similar ideology. The group, which was formed in 2007, aims to topple the Pakistani government and to establish a government that is in line with their strict interpretation of Islam.
While the Taliban operate in different areas across Pakistan they do not currently control a particular area. In the past in areas under their control, the Pakistani group banned girls’ education and women were not allowed to work. Nonprofit organizations were also banned from operating.
Advocates of girls education have also been targeted. A member of the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for shooting and badly wounding Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2012. She had enraged the Taliban by promoting girls’ education.
To this day, women who work for charities are at risk in Pakistan’s conservative tribal areas where many men and militants reject their efforts to empower women in local society and paint them as stooges of the West.
“The female social workers came here from towns and the nonprofit had not informed us before sending these females to this volatile area,” said Gandapur, the police chief. “Had they informed us before their visit, we would have provided them security and could have possibly avoided this unfortunate incident.”
Police said they had launched a “search and strike” operation to try and arrest the assailants.
Khan, of Bravo College of Technology, said the project to train men and women in North Waziristan was a joint venture with Sabawon, a national organization that helps poor and vulnerable communities including through education, gender empowerment and the provision of improved social services and facilities.
Sabawon released a statement Monday expressing concern over the death of the four female workers of Bravo College but said they did not represent Sabawon.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.