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Pakistan resumes polio vaccinations in Swat

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[September 08, 2009]  ISLAMABAD (AP) -- Authorities in Pakistan's Swat Valley have resumed vaccinating children for polio, an act once banned by Taliban militants, now beaten back by an army offensive.

The last vaccinations were administered nearly a year ago, an official said Tuesday.

The Islamist militants, who began spreading their reign in the valley in 2007, had declared that vaccinating against the potentially crippling disease was un-Islamic because it was a foreign-funded campaign. Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazullah said the vaccinations were a Western conspiracy to make Muslim children infertile.

The army says it has killed more than 1,800 suspected militants in Swat since launching its latest offensive there four months ago. The government is now trying to bring the valley back to normal. Most of the 2 million people displaced in the offensive have returned home.

Government official Khurshid Khan said six cases of polio have been discovered since vaccinations resumed Monday. Some 215,000 children are a target of the three-day campaign, said Khan, himself a physician.

He said Pakistani health officials had to quit their campaign last September after several attacks by the militants. The department made another attempt to restart in January, but that was quickly abandoned after another attack.

"Our staff was beaten and our equipment were snatched," Khan told The Associated Press.

Swat resident Yar Mohammad said the people of the valley welcomed the resumption of the campaign.

"The militants have been depriving our children of our basic right. It is our national responsibility to secure our kids against all diseases," said Mohammad, who lives in the valley's main city, Mingora.

Polio has been eradicated in most countries. But in Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan and India it remains "endemic," according to the World Health Organization.

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The disease mostly strikes children under age 5 and is spread when people come into contact with the feces of those with the virus. It usually attacks the nervous system, causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and sometimes death.

Pakistan still faces threats from Taliban fighters and other militant groups throughout its northwest.

In the Orakzai tribal region on Tuesday, suspected militants killed four high school students, officials and a resident said.

Government official Mohammad Yasin could only confirm that gunmen fired on students in the Kalaya village area. However, the resident, Yousuf Mohammad, said he saw masked gunmen killed four boys. Others were wounded.

The children were Shiite Muslims, an intelligence official said. He said their tribe was fighting a gunbattle with the militants. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information to media.

Orakzai is the main base for new Pakistani Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, but no group has claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack, and the tribal region has been the past scene of sectarian violence.

[Associated Press; By ASIF SHAHZAD]

Associated Press writer Hussain Afzal in Parachinar contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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