- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

QUETTA, Pakistan | John Solecki, the American chief of the U.N. refugee office who is being held hostage by a mysterious insurgent group, probably never met Ali Asghar Bangulzai, a Pakistani tailor who disappeared nearly eight years ago.

Yet their lives became inextricably linked when Mr. Solecki was kidnapped Feb. 2 on his way to his office in Quetta, the capital of the Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

Within weeks of the abduction, kidnappers claiming to represent the previously unheard of Baluch Liberation United Front produced a list of nearly 1,100 people - including Mr. Bangulzai - they claim have been picked up by Pakistani secret services.

The kidnappers say they want to trade Mr. Solecki, a native of Demarest, N.J., for Mr. Bangulzai and others on the list. Baluch activists say prisoners are being held in a network of secret sites throughout Pakistan.

To outsiders, the kidnapping marks Baluchistan - the largest but least populated of Pakistan’s four provinces - as yet another front where the central government of nuclear-armed Pakistan is battling for its survival.

See related story:Pakistan seeks to stem turmoil

Al Qaeda and Taliban militants control vast swaths of North West Frontier Province. Punjab, the most populous of four Pakistani provinces, seethes with daily anti-government protests over a court decision barring opposition leader and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding public office.

In Baluchistan, Mr. Solecki’s kidnapping appears to reflect growing nationalist sentiment among ethnic Baluch tribes, for whom the connection to militant Islam remains murky.

“As a whole, Pakistan is being challenged by multiple threats and in Baluchistan, the question raised is that many of the Taliban leaders are there,” said Brian Katulis, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.

“There’s a lot of overlap. People make linkages between the Taliban, al Qaeda militants and tribal elements. We don’t have a full understanding of all of those linkages,” Mr. Katulis said.

Mr. Bangulzai was picked up on Oct. 18, 2001, from his shop on Quetta’s Saryab Road, a bustling commercial street where walls of graffiti display slogans such as “Death to Pakistan,” and “Free Baluchistan.”

It is also the site of frequent sectarian killings, especially of Shi’ite Muslims.

Mr. Bangulzai’s son, Ghulam Farooq, suspects military intelligence is involved because his father was picked up once before, in the spring of 2000.

“When he came back, he told us he was held by [military intelligence] in a torture cell in Quetta city, where he wouldn’t be allowed to sleep and was repeatedly asked about his involvement with nationalist parties,” Mr. Farooq said.

Two days after Mr. Bangulzai’s second disappearance, Mr. Farooq said he approached the deputy inspector general of Quetta’s police department who told him secret agencies had arrested his father.

Mr. Farooq and his brothers say their father would sometimes attend meetings held by the Baluch Republican Party, but deny he is an insurgent. The party denies any connection to Mr. Solecki’s abduction.

When The Washington Times contacted the deputy inspector general of the police department in Quetta, he refused to discuss Mr. Solecki’s disappearance or other missing people, saying it was a very sensitive time.

Pakistani officials said last week that security forces have surrounded the area where Mr. Solecki is being held, but would exercise caution.

“We have identified the kidnappers and the place where Solecki is being kept,” Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told reporters Friday, Agence France-Presse reported. Mr. Qureshi did not name the group responsible.

While the Taliban and al Qaeda have been active for years near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Baluchistan has had tribal-based insurgencies going back decades. The latest campaign began in 2004, when rebels demanded autonomy and a greater share of profits from oil, gas and other natural resources.

Besides Mr. Bangulzai, the list of those said to have “disappeared” by the Baluch Liberation United Front includes laborers reportedly picked up from Chaman - a border town between Quetta and Kandahar in southern Afghanistan - government workers, students, tribal elders and political workers affiliated with the Baluch Republican Party.

Maj. Gen Saleem Nawaz, inspector general of Baluchistan’s Frontier Corps, who is leading the efforts to recover Mr. Solecki, calls the list a hoax and says the kidnappers have issued contradictory statements.

“First they said 6,000 people are missing, but the list they sent only contains a little more than a thousand names. Where are the remaining 5,000 names if those people are also missing?” he asked.

Gen. Nawaz said security forces have arrested people involved in anti-state activities. “But they’re not more than 200 to 300, out of which many have been returned and others have been traced abroad,” he said.

Gen. Nawaz said he thinks that behind Mr. Solecki’s kidnapping is one man - Nawabzada Brahamdagh Bugti - the fugitive leader of the Baluchistan Republican Party.

“I am convinced he is involved,” he said. “I am 100 percent sure.”

In pictures, Mr. Brahamdagh Bugti is a strapping young man with a bushy beard and wavy hair down to his shoulders. He is often seen at the side of his grandfather, a Baluch nationalist leader who was killed by the Pakistani army in 2006.

Pakistani officials think Mr. Brahamdagh Bugti is hiding in Afghanistan, commands about 200 armed men and is receiving funding from neighboring countries.

His uncle, Talal Bugti, says there is little doubt that his nephew is engaged in terrorist activities. “He has himself admitted he is conducting attacks against the army and the government,” he said.

Quetta-based political analyst Maajid Fauz said Mr. Brahamdagh Bugti is striking back out of rage at the injustices he has seen around him.

“The army murdered his grandfather, who was revered as a national hero in his home village. Then due to the unfair allocation of resources in Pakistan, Baluchistan has never received enough money to develop adequately. All this has led to a lot of anger in young men like Brahamdagh.”

• Willis Witter contributed to this report from Washington.

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