PESHAWAR, Pakistan - Gunmen in northwest Pakistan killed five female teachers and two aid workers on Tuesday in an ambush on a van carrying workers home from their jobs at a community centre, officials said.
The attack was another reminder of the risks to women educators and aid workers from Islamic militants who oppose their work. It was in the same conservative province where militants shot and seriously wounded 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai, an outspoken young activist for girls' education, in October.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest shootings.
The van was transporting teachers and aid workers from the centre in conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. It is an area where Islamic militants often target women and girls trying to get an education or female teachers.
Militants in the province have blown up schools and killed female educators. They have also kidnapped and killed aid workers, viewing them as promoting a foreign agenda.
Last month, nine people working on an anti-polio vaccination campaign were shot and killed.
The teachers were killed along with two health workers, one man and one woman. Their driver was wounded. They were on their way home from a community centre in the town of Swabi where they were working at a primary school for girls and adjoining medical centre.
Swabi police chief Abdur Rasheed said most of the women killed were between the ages of 20 and 22. He said four gunmen who used two motorcycles fled the scene and have not been apprehended.
The gunmen on motorcycles opened fire with automatic weapons, said Javed Akhtar, executive director of the non-governmental organization Support With Working Solutions. The NGO conducts programs in the education and health sectors and runs the community centre in Swabi, he said. The group has been active in the city since 1992, and started the Ujala Community Welfare Center in 2010, he added. Ujala means "light" in Urdu.
The centre is financed by the Pakistani government's Poverty Alleviation Program and a German organization, said Akhtar.
He said the NGO also runs health and education projects in the South Waziristan tribal area, as well as health projects in the cities of Tank and Dera Ismail Khan and the regions of Lower Dir and Upper Kurram. All of those cities and regions are in northwest Pakistan, the area that has been most affected by the ongoing fight with militants opposed to the current government.
Aid groups such as Support With Working Solutions often provide a vital role in many areas of Pakistan where the government has been unable to provide services such as medical clinics or schools. But in some areas like the northwest, they have had to work to overcome community fears that they are promoting a foreign agenda at odds with local traditions and values.
Akhtar said he has directed staff at all projects to stop working for the time being until security measures are reviewed but vowed that they would resume their work soon.
He said that the NGO had not received any threats before the attack.
In a case in the same province that gained international attention, a Taliban gunman shot 15-year-old Yousufzai in the head last October for criticizing the militants and promoting girls' education. She is currently recovering in Britain.