Monday, February 2, 2009

Police seek seized American UN worker in Pakistan

QUETTA, Pakistan – Gunmen seized an American U.N. worker as he rode to work, shooting and killing his driver, U.N. and Pakistani authorities said. His Land Cruiser was found rammed against a wall, punctured by at least one bullet hole.
The United Nations expressed "extreme shock and dismay" at the rare attack Monday in a region that has largely been spared the al-Qaida and Taliban insurgency wracking much of northwestern Pakistan.
The government called the abduction of John Solecki, head of the U.N. refugee office in the southwestern city of Quetta, a "dastardly terrorist act." But police said it was not clear whether Islamist militants, criminals seeking a ransom payment or members of a regional separatist group were responsible.
Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan province, which partly borders Afghanistan. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has worked for three decades in the region helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing violence in their homeland.
Police increased patrols and security checks along roads leading to Afghanistan, some 60 miles (95 kilometers) away, fearing Solecki may be taken there.
Meanwhile in the northwestern part of the nation, at least 35 Islamist militants were killed in an overnight operation in Swat Valley, which has been increasingly overrun with insurgents, Pakistan's military said in a statement Tuesday.
Security forces used helicopter gunships and artillery in the attack, the army said.
Swat was once a popular tourist destination, but about two years ago militants began a violent campaign to enforce Taliban-style Islam there. The state responded with force, but residents say militants increasingly hold sway.
Baluchistan, where Solecki was kidnapped, has largely been spared the al-Qaida and Taliban insurgency in northwestern Pakistan, where several foreigners have been attacked or kidnapped in recent months. In August, Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in the northwest, narrowly survived an attack on her vehicle in Peshawar by suspected militants. In November, also in Peshawar, gunmen shot and killed American aid worker Stephen Vance.
Senior police officer Khalid Masood said Solecki has worked in Quetta for more than two years. Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, confirmed he is an American citizen.
The United Nations expressed "extreme shock and dismay" at the kidnapping and the killing of the driver.
"We strongly condemn this attack on humanitarian workers in Pakistan who have been doing their utmost to deliver their humanitarian mission," it said in a statement.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said he could not confirm any details.
"There is an investigation going on to see what happened to this individual," Wood said. "We obviously will be in touch with the necessary authorities."
At the scene of the kidnapping in an upscale neighborhood, a UNHCR Land Cruiser with at least one bullet hole was rammed against a wall.
Solecki did not have a police escort, Masood said. "We have learned that he usually did not like to have an escort with him on his way to the office."
Soon after the attack, authorities sealed exit routes from the city, officers said. Police also increased patrols and security checks along roads leading to Afghanistan, fearing Solecki may be taken there.
Quetta has been mentioned by Afghan officials as a likely hiding place for Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders who are thought to have fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.
Baluchistan is also the scene of a low-level insurgency driven by nationalist groups wanting more regional autonomy. They are not known to target foreigners.
General crime has also been on the rise in many parts of Pakistan, including kidnappings for ransom. An Iranian diplomat was abducted in Peshawar last year, and other foreigners and Afghans have been taken.
It was not clear whether the abduction would impact U.N. work in Pakistan. The bombing of Islamabad's Marriott hotel in September prompted new U.N. rules prohibiting expatriate staff from living with their children in cities including Quetta.

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