The Taliban hinted Thursday they may launch attacks against foreigners helping Pakistan respond to the worst floods in the country's history, saying their presence was "unacceptable." The U.N. said it would not be deterred by violent threats.
The militant group has attacked aid workers in the country before, and an outbreak of violence could complicate a relief effort that has already struggled to reach the 8 million people who are in need of emergency assistance.
Pakistani Taliban spokesman Azam Tariq claimed the U.S. and other countries that have pledged support are not really focused on providing aid to flood victims but had other motives he did not specify.
"Behind the scenes they have certain intentions, but on the face they are talking of relief and help," Tariq told The Associated Press by telephone from an undisclosed location. "No relief is reaching the affected people, and when the victims are not receiving help, then this horde of foreigners is not acceptable to us at all."
He strongly hinted that the militants could resort to violence, saying "when we say something is unacceptable to us, one can draw his own conclusion."
A spokesman for the World Health Organization told the BBC that aid work in certain areas was already being affected by security concerns.
"Now with this threat it means either we have to downsize the operation - which means less access to the affectees - otherwise we have to take more mitigation measures in order to reduce the security risk, which means more resources," Ahmed Farah Shadoul said.
Foreign countries have pledged nearly $800 million and provided aid workers to help Pakistan cope with floods that began almost a month ago with the onset of the monsoon and have ravaged a massive swath of Pakistan, from the mountainous north to its agricultural heartland.
The U.S. military has also stepped in to help, flying helicopters that have evacuated flood victims and delivered relief supplies in the hard-hit northwest.
The United Nations has urged countries to provide even more assistance and said Thursday that the group won't let violent threats deter its relief effort.
"There is a lot of work ahead and millions of people who need our assistance," said Maurizio Giulano, spokesman for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "We would find it inhumane for someone to target us and our work, effectively harming the millions of people whose lives we strive to save."
The Pakistani Taliban carried out a suicide attack against the office of the U.N.'s World Food Program in Islamabad last October, killing five staffers. In March, militants armed with assault rifles and a homemade bomb attacked the offices of a U.S.-based Christian aid group helping earthquake survivors in northwestern Pakistan, killing six Pakistani employees.
Violence has been relatively low in the country since the floods hit, but three bomb attacks in northwestern Pakistan on Monday killed at least 36 people.
While increased Taliban attacks would complicate the flood relief effort, the group could also risk backlash from the millions of victims who have lost everything and are desperate to receive food and shelter.
The death toll in the floods stands around 1,500 people, but the disaster ranks as one of Pakistan's worst ever because of the scale and massive economic damage, especially to the country's vital agricultural sector. The U.N. said earlier this week that some 800,000 people are still cut off by the floods and accessible only by air.
Pakistani officials urged anyone left in three southern towns Thursday to evacuate immediately as floodwaters broke through a levee, endangering areas previously untouched by the country's almost monthlong disaster.
The swollen Indus River broke through the Sur Jani embankment in southern Sindh province late Wednesday, threatening the towns of Sujawal, Daro and Mir Pur Batoro, said Mansoor Sheikh, a top government official in Thatta district.
Most of the 400,000 people who live in the area are thought to have evacuated already, but those remaining were warned to flee, he said.
Pakistan's senior meteorologist, Arif Mahmood, said high tides were preventing the Indus River from fully shedding excess water into the Arabian Sea.
"We hope these tides would fully subside after 48 hours," he said.