Monday, February 2, 2009

QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) — Gunmen kidnapped an American U.N. worker and killed his driver in southwestern Pakistan on Monday, underscoring the security threat in a country wracked by al-Qaida violence and rising criminality.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry called the abduction a “dastardly terrorist act,” but it was not clear who seized the head of the U.N. refugee office in the city of Quetta as he traveled to work.

Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan province, which partly borders Afghanistan. The dusty city is believed to be a possible hiding place for Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders, who are thought to have fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Southwestern Pakistan is also the scene of a low-level insurgency driven by nationalist groups wanting more autonomy for Baluchistan province. But, unlike Taliban and al-Qaida militants who control pockets of the northwest, the Baluch groups are not known to target foreigners. Police said they could not recall another foreigner being kidnapped in Quetta.

Police officer Khalid Masood identified the victim as U.S. citizen John Solecki and said he had been working in Quetta for more than two years.

Authorities sealed exit routes from the city, said Wazir Khan Nasir, another officer. Police in the border town of Chaman said they were checking vehicles to prevent the kidnappers from whisking the captive to Afghanistan.

It was not immediately clear what impact the abduction would have on U.N. work in Pakistan, if any. Last September’s bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott hotel prompted new U.N. rules prohibiting expatriate staff in Pakistan from living with their children in parts of the country, including Quetta.

General crime has been on the rise in many parts of the country, including kidnappings for ransom. An Iranian diplomat was abducted in the northwestern city of Peshawar last year, and other foreigners and Afghans have also been taken.

U.N. spokeswoman Amena Kamaal in Islamabad confirmed that a Pakistani driver was killed and a foreign national employee’s whereabouts were unknown but declined to release any other details. U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said American officials were looking into the reports.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has worked for years in Baluchistan helping Afghans who have fled violence in their homeland.

At the scene of the kidnapping in the Chaman Housing Society neighborhood on Monday, a UNHCR Land Cruiser was rammed against a wall. At least one bullet hole was visible on the vehicle.

Solecki did not have a police escort while he was traveling, Masood said.

“We have learned that he usually did not like to have an escort with him on his way to the office,” Masood said.

Nasir said Solecki’s office and home had security, including police.

“We had given adequate security to him,” Nasir said. “We also had a meeting with him, and we had fulfilled all requirements he had discussed with us.”

Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad and Matiullah Achakzai in Chaman contributed to this report.

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