KARACHI, Pakistan — Gunmen shot dead five women working on U.N.-backed polio vaccination efforts in two Pakistani cities Tuesday, officials said, a major setback for a campaign that international health officials consider vital to containing the crippling disease but which Taliban insurgents say is a cover for espionage.
Pakistan is one of only three countries where polio is endemic. Militants, however, accuse health workers of acting as spies for the United States and claim that the vaccine makes children sterile. Taliban commanders in the troubled northwest tribal region have also said vaccinations can't go forward until the United States stops drone strikes in the country.
Insurgent opposition to the campaign grew last year after it was revealed that a Pakistani doctor ran a fake vaccination program to help the CIA track down al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in the town of Abbottabad in the country's northwest.
The Taliban have targeted previous polio vaccination campaigns, but this has been a particularly deadly week. The government is in the middle of a three-day vaccination drive targeting high-risk areas of the country as part of an effort to immunize millions of children under the age of 5.
"Such attacks deprive Pakistan's most vulnerable populations — especially children — of basic life-saving health interventions," said a statement jointly released by the government and the United Nations.
The women who were killed Tuesday were all shot in the head at close range. Four of them were gunned down in the southern port city of Karachi, and the fifth in a village outside the northwest city of Peshawar. Two men who were working alongside the women were also critically wounded in Karachi.
On Monday, another person working on the polio vaccination campaign, a male volunteer, was gunned down in Karachi. Taliban militants also killed three soldiers in an ambush of an army convoy escorting a vaccination team in the northwest.