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Pakistan: UN official's kidnapping highlights security threat

Gunmen abducted John Solecki, head of the UN refugee agency in Quetta, on his way to work Monday.

By Issam AhmedCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 3, 2009

John Solecki: The American was abducted in Quetta Monday.

Arshad Butt/AP/FILE

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Lahore, Pakistan

An American UN official was kidnapped and his driver was shot dead by gunmen in southwestern Pakistan on Monday, in a further example of the deteriorating security situation in the country.

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John Solecki, head of the UN refugee office in the city of Quetta, in Balochistan Province, was on his way to work with his driver, Syed Hashim, when their vehicle was intercepted, according to Pakistani officials.

Foreign Ministry officials denounced the abduction as a "dastardly terrorist act." The government has moved to seal the city with paramilitary forces, checking vehicles as they exit the city.

Officials say the motive behind the kidnapping remains unknown. So far no group has claimed responsibility, leaving analysts to speculate whether the kidnapping was orchestrated by religious militants, regional nationalist groups, or common criminals.

Quetta is the capital of Balochistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran. Separatist groups in the province have been conducting a low-level insurgency for decades, though the Baloch groups are not known to target foreigners.

Afghanistan has also accused Pakistani intelligence agencies of harboring Taliban leader Mullah Omar in the city of Quetta since he fled Afghanistan in 2001, a claim Pakistan rejects.

The incident has rocked government officials who see the kidnapping as an attempt to destabilize the coalition government, which has been in place since elections were held last February.

Lashkari Raisani, president of the ruling Pakistan People's Party in Balochistan, says: "It's totally shocking. We couldn't imagine a thing like this could happen here."

Citing police sources, Mr. Raisani says the kidnappers may have been "Baloch-speaking" – indicating that the generally Pastho-speaking Taliban may not be involved – but he added he could not be sure.

"They are well-organized, and I think it was orchestrated by those who have an interest in destabilizing the province and the democratically elected government," he says.

Kidnappings occur more in northwest

Balochistan, though a dangerous region, has thus far been spared the extreme violence prevalent in the neighboring North West Frontier Province (NWFP), which has seen a spate of foreigners kidnapped in recent months.

Last year an Iranian diplomat was abducted in the city of Peshawar in the NWFP, while American aid worker Stephen Vance was shot dead in November.

The top US diplomat in the northwest, Lynne Tracy, narrowly survived an attack on her vehicle in Peshawar in August.

Pakistani Taliban militants were believed to be responsible for the kidnapping of a Chinese engineer, a Polish engineer, and two Afghan diplomats. All of them were abducted in the northwest and are still being held.

Last October, after a suicide truck-bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad killed 56 people, including six foreigners, the United Nations ordered the children of foreign staff to leave Pakistan.

Solecki: out and about

According to Saleem Shahid, a correspondent based in Quetta for the Pakistani English-language daily, Dawn, Mr. Solecki – who has lived in Quetta for about two years – regularly traveled around without security detail.

"I would see him regularly in the bazaar. Once he came to tell me about his travels outside the city to witness the sport of buzkashi," a polo-like sport, says Shahid.

A UN statement condemned the attack and said all measures were being taken to secure Solecki's release.

Wire material was used for this report.

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