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Osama killed, Pakistani students pay the price

A group of British schools, fearing negative publicity, cut off a partnership with teachers and students in this town where Osama bin Laden was killed, upsetting Pakistani participants who note that a key purpose of the program was eradicating stereotypes.

world Updated: Jun 29, 2011 15:01 IST

A group of British schools, fearing negative publicity, cut off a partnership with teachers and students in this town where Osama bin Laden was killed, upsetting Pakistani participants who note that a key purpose of the program was eradicating stereotypes.

The partnership's demise is an unusual example of fallout from the May 2 US raid that killed the al Qaeda chief, an operation that has deeply shaken the US-Pakistan relationship because it was carried out without Pakistani government knowledge.

"Abbottabad residents and students had nothing to do with Osama or any of his activity," said Zafar Abbasi, an Abbottabad school official.

"Linking them with Osama is regrettable, and depriving students of the program is even worse."

Since 2008, four government schools and one private school in Abbottabad were partnered with four government schools in Blackburn, a British town that has experienced tensions between white and South Asian residents in the past.

The British Council, the British government's international cultural relations body, oversaw the relationship under its Connecting Classrooms program, allocating about 30,000 pounds ($48,000) for it, said a person familiar with the arrangement, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

The exchange began strong, with students on both ends participating in such activities as sending poems to one another, setting up "cultural corners" in their schools, and exchanging greetings on national holidays.

In recent months, the pace of activity had slowed down, the source said, and funding was running out. But the British Council decided to try to re-energize the program, and a visit to Blackburn by five Abbottabad teachers was scheduled for mid-May.

Then bin Laden was killed in a raid by US Navy Seals, putting Abbottabad on the world map of infamy.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press indicate school leaders in Blackburn were aghast at the possibility of publicity in the British press if Abbottabad teachers suddenly showed up in their sometimes racially tense town, where the anti-immigrant British National Party has been active.

Pakistani teachers involved in the program said not only was the May trip canceled, but Blackburn officials also wouldn't conduct a planned video conference with them and told them they were severing ties. The Pakistanis had expected up to six months more of contacts.

"It was a good project in terms of enlightening our students, but tragically it was cut off for the wrong reason," said Rafia Naz, an Abbottabad teacher.

"Our students were happy that they were in a project which was helping clear their country's name," so often linked to terrorism.

In reply to numerous AP emails and phone calls seeking comment, Blackburn issued a statement on Monday saying British Council funding was supposed to end "around this time."

"A decision was taken in consultation with headteachers to wind down the scheme slightly earlier," said Harry Devonport, the town council's director of education.

One email obtained by the AP, sent to participating Pakistanis and Britons by a Blackburn official, suggested the post-bin Laden aftermath made things too touchy for even a video conference.

"I am sorry to say that a decision has been taken that the Blackburn cluster must distance itself from the partnership in Abbottabad in order to avoid sensitive political issues, therefore neither the video conference nor the visit can go ahead," wrote Carole Grady, whose title is "manager."

A British Council statement said the Blackburn-Abbottabad link expired "after the completion of the three-year funding cycle."

It did not explain why there were plans for a trip in May.

It stressed that the Connecting Classrooms program, which involves partnerships among thousands of schools worldwide and has reached millions of students, was devoted to "developing understanding and trust between young people."

For Abbottabad students, trust and understanding appeared shaken.

"We want to tell the world, 'We're not terrorists, we are students, and we should be treated likewise,'" said Maryam Bibi, a 10th-grader.

"This was a good project, a good activity for us, and it should have been continued, not disconnected like this."