Spate of kidnappings in Pakistan triggers unease

Jan 25, 2012, 6:47 PM

Associated Press

ISLAMABAD (AP) – Seven foreigners have been kidnapped in Pakistan in the last six months, four in January alone, highlighting the security threat in the country and hampering aid efforts.

Islamist militants, separatist rebels or regular criminals are suspected in the abductions, with motives ranging from ransom, publicity or concessions from the U.S. or Pakistani governments such as prisoner releases or a halt to army operations

Development workers who have been helping victims of flooding or those affected by military campaigns against militants in the northwest close to Afghanistan have been the primary targets, although two Swiss tourists also have been seized.

Large ransoms have reportedly been paid in the past to secure the freedom of foreign and Pakistani hostages, while the kidnappers have killed others.

On Jan. 5, armed men kidnapped a British man working for the Red Cross in Quetta, the capital of southwestern Baluchistan, which is home to separatist insurgents and Islamic militants. City police say they believe he is no longer in the city, but otherwise have no information about who is holding him.

Last year, a pair of Swiss tourists were seized in the same province. The man and woman appeared in a video released by their captors, the Pakistani Taliban, who they said had threatened to kill them.

Gunmen bundled two European aid workers _ one Italian and one German _ into a car in the Pakistani city of Multan in central Punjab province last week. A Kenyan, also working for an international group, disappeared Monday as he drove from the city of Sukkur, in Sindh province.

All three men were working on relief projects following floods in 2010 and 2011 that destroyed or damaged hundreds of thousands of homes in Sindh and Punjab provinces, triggering a major international aid effort. While many projects have wound up, others are continuing, employing Pakistanis and foreigners.

In one of the highest-profile cases, a 70-year-old American humanitarian aid worker was kidnapped from his house in the Punjabi city of Lahore in August.

Al-Qaida claimed to be holding the man, Warren Weinstein, and said in a video he would be released if the United States stopped airstrikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Unusually, the video did not contain footage, photos or any other evidence that Weinstein was alive or even in al-Qaida’s custody.

Pakistan has been plagued by militant violence since 2007, and international agencies were already operating under severe security restrictions.

Pakistani employees, who make up the vast majority of international agencies staff, have also been frequently targeted for abduction.

“We are concerned for the people who have been kidnapped and the ability of NGOs to carry out the work,” said Aine Fay, chairman of the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum, which represents 42 international aid groups in the country. “There are people in need out there. It’s people on the ground that suffer.”

As well as threats from militants, humanitarian workers have complained about harassment from Pakistani intelligence agencies in the wake of the unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011. The CIA ran a vaccination campaign in the town where bin Laden was living ahead of the raid to try and get information about him.

The army was infuriated by the raid and whipped up already strong anti-Western sentiment in the country. It continues to subject foreigners in the country to intense scrutiny, the implication being that they maybe spies.

One development worker, who declined to be identified because he didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention his employer in the media, said his colleagues had been told to keep a much lower profile but faced no extra restrictions.

“Everyone is a keeping close eye on it. The big question is whether this is banditry or something more sinister,” he said, referring to concerns that foreigners maybe targeted by criminal gangs, then “sold on” to militants.

___

Associated Press reporters Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Khalid Tanveer in Multan contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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Spate of kidnappings in Pakistan triggers unease