Suspected militants ambushed a vehicle carrying women activists from a non-governmental organization in a former northwestern tribal region bordering Afghanistan on Monday, killing four of them and wounding the driver, police said. The attack took place in the village of Epi in Mir Ali, a town in the North Waziristan district, said Iqbal Khan, a local police officer.
Shafi Ullah Khan, a district police chief, also confirmed the attack, saying police were searching for the attackers. They fled to nearby mountains and no one has claimed responsibility.
Khan said the victims belonged to the Sabawon Pakistani charity, which provides training to women interested in doing business from their homes and creates awareness about their rights.
But Arfan Ullah Marwat, a spokesman for the Sabawon charity, said the slain women were not their employees. Marwat refused to share any further details, although police investigators insisted that their initial probe indicated the slain women were working for the Sabawon charity.
Khan said the women activists traveled to Mir Ali from the town of Bannu in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It was unclear why police and the charity gave conflicting information about the women.
Fayaz Khan, the chief executive of Bravo College of Technology in Peshawar, told NBC News the activists were hired to help women learn sewing and other vocational skills.
“Is this the way to give back to someone for the hard work they were doing for the poor?” Fayaz Khan told the network.
The attack drew condemnation from Pakistani rights activists on social media, with most of them demanding a swift action against those responsible.
Police said the apparent militants had prior information and were waiting for the women to arrive. Pakistani militants have in recent months stepped up their activities in the region, raising fears they were regrouping in the former Taliban stronghold.
Militants also often attack Pakistani troops in the former tribal regions bordering Afghanistan.
The North and South Waziristan districts served as the main base for local and foreign militants until the military secured the regions in 2015.
The Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, are a separate insurgent group from the Afghan Taliban, although Pakistan’s militant groups are often interlinked with those across the border.
Monday’s killing of the women came hours before Major General Iftikhar Babar, the army spokesman, said at a televised news conference that there has been a significant reduction in militant attacks since 2017, when security forces launched military operations in the former tribal regions that border Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Babar said Pakistan had also completed about 84% of fencing along the border with Afghanistan, which Islamabad has said was necessary to prevent militant attacks from both sides. Pakistan shares a 1,622-mile border with Afghanistan, known as the Durand Line. Afghanistan never recognized the border, which runs through the Pashtun heartland, diluting the power of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group on both sides.
Pakistan and Afghanistan often accuse each other of turning a blind eye to Islamic militants operating along the porous frontier.