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Six dead in Pakistan school attack

Published: 7:51AM Tuesday August 06, 2002

A raid on a school for the children of foreign missionaries in Pakistan has sent a fresh shockwave through the country's Christian and foreign communities, already reeling from a spate of bloody attacks.

Six Pakistanis were killed and at least three people, one a Filipino, were wounded when masked gunmen burst into the Murree Christian School northeast of the capital Islamabad.

While none of the 146 children of missionaries from countries including the United States, Britain, Canada, Germany and New Zealand was hurt, the attack will further fray nerves in what remains of the Western community in Pakistan.

Many expatriates left as tension rose when Pakistan sided with the US-led "war on terrorism" after the September 11 attacks on the United States.

They had just started trickling back.

Embassies and multinational companies have been operating on skeleton staffs since non-essential personnel and dependants were sent home and foreigners were advised not to travel to the Muslim state.

The impact of the latest attack will be felt particularly acutely in the Christian community, which was already in a state of siege after several fatal attacks since last September.

"This is a potential disaster for the foreign missionary community," said Russell Morton, director of the Christian School, which takes pupils aged from six to 18, including 30 Americans.

"If you wanted to hit at the missionary community in Pakistan, what better way than to hit at their kids?"

School considering future

He said the school board was now looking at whether it could continue to operate in its current form. If the school was to close, it would make it difficult for missionary families to remain in the country, he said.

Morton said the fact the gunmen had not attacked the classrooms could be an indication they had intended to scare, not kill, Westerners, but added: "Each missionary family will make a decision about the security of their family."

Morton said many had only recently returned to Pakistan having left the country after September 11.

"It is my opinion that this attack was designed to cause trouble for the Pakistan authorities," he said. "The school has been operating for 46 years and we have never had any problems with the local community in the past."

Armed guards are already stationed at virtually all churches in Pakistan and bag and body searches before services are a constant reminder of the risks Christians face.

Many churches have seen attendance drop after foreign nationals left the country, while some Pakistani worshippers have chosen to attend places they consider more safe.

At the Protestant International Church in Islamabad, security has been particularly tight since a March grenade attack there killed five people, including the wife and daughter of an American diplomat.

One of its congregation, Mark Anderson, said services were being held in another building while repair work was completed.

Armed guards for churches

"There are armed police, and sometimes military people there performing bag searches," he said.

Those guilty of the church attack have yet to be found, and it remains unclear whether the motives behind the three recent fatal strikes on Christian targets were political - targeting Americans specifically - or religious.

Before the school and the Islamabad church attack, 16 Pakistani Christians and a Muslim were killed last October in a church in Bahawalpur in populous Punjab province.

No group has claimed responsibility for the school shootings, although suspicion has fallen on militants blamed for other attacks on foreign targets in the past year.

Such groups have been angered by President Pervez Musharraf's support for the US-led campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban in neighbouring Afghanistan following September 11.

Eleven French engineers and three Pakistanis were killed in a bomb attack in the southern city of Karachi on May 8, and 12 Pakistanis died and 20 were wounded when a car bomb exploded outside the US consulate on June 14.

Irshad John, who leads St. Thomas's Protestant Church in Islamabad, believes the attacks are largely political.

"Their targets are American," he said. "These people are terrorists. We want to pray that God changes their minds so they do something other than killing."

© Reuters