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Asia-pacific

UN official's abduction a complicated whodunnit

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2009-02-05

Pakistani officials have pledged to find the kidnappers of a top UN official abducted on Monday. But in the remote southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, there are culprits aplenty.

For his first visit to Pakistan as UN secretary general on Wednesday, Ban ki Moon has such a raft of issues to tackle, few would have imagined that a desolate, much-overlooked mountainous region in southwestern Pakistan could creep into his packed agenda.

 

But just two days before Ban’s visit, a top American UN official was kidnapped in the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan.

 

In the highest-profile abduction of a US citizen in Pakistan since the 2002 kidnapping of US journalist Daniel Pearl, John Solecki, head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), was abducted in Baluchistan.

 

While most South Asia experts expect Monday’s kidnapping to crop up on Ban’s agenda in Pakistan, the office of the UN secretary general has been tightlipped about specifics. “He will discuss a range of issues during his visit and certainly the recent developments,” was all UN spokesman Farhan Haq was willing to disclose to FRANCE 24.

 

Whodunnit: a rich trove of likely suspects

 

On Monday, Solecki was on his way to work in the Baluchi capital of Quetta when gunmen ambushed his car, killing his Pakistani driver before abducting him. It was unknown if Solecki was wounded in the attack.


A day after the attack, Pakistani security officials arrested more than a dozen suspects. But in interviews with the local and international press, Pakistani officials have also admitted that they have no idea who snatched Solecki.

 

And that, as Ban is bound to discover during his trip to Pakistan, is likely to be hard to determine.


A remote province which borders Iran and Afghanistan, Baluchistan has a rich trove of likely suspects including separatist groups, insurgent rebels, criminal gangs and Islamist militants.

 

While kidnappings and attacks have become relatively routine in the neighbouring North Western Frontier Province and the tribal areas, high profile abductions have been relatively rare in Baluchistan.

 

The sheer audacity of Solecki’s kidnapping has led Pakistani security officials to speculate that it is the work of Taliban insurgents, who have established a firm foothold in the regions near the Afghan border.

 

But unlike the North West Frontier Province and the tribal zones, Baluchistan is not traditionally a home ground for the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.

 

‘The Kurds of Central Asia’

 

With an area slightly smaller than Norway, Baluchistan is Pakistan’s largest province. While Pashtuns form a majority in the northern border areas, the bulk of the province’s population is made up of Baloch and Brohi tribes.

 

Spread across the border regions of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, the Baluchis are often referred to as “the Kurds of Central Asia” and have had an often violent, complicated history with the country’s federal government since Pakistan’s birth in 1947.

 

Home to rich mineral and gas reserves, Baluchistan has seen numerous uprisings against the federal government by a variety of groups who criticise the federal government for failing to share the profits of the province’s wealth.

 

In the past five years, six Chinese nationals working on a deep sea port project on the Arabian Sea have been killed by Baloch militants.

 

Pakistani security officials in Baluchistan have their hands full with an ongoing counterinsurgency as well as an operation against Taliban and al Qaeda-related militants, all of which have fused to make Baluchistan an endemically violent region.

 

‘Sitting on a keg of dynamite, smoking a cigarette’

 

But while the anti-terror operations in the frontier province and tribal zones have been under intense international scrutiny in recent months, the situation in Baluchistan has been largely ignored.

 

That, according to Stephen Cohen from the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution, is not a deliberate oversight. “Pakistan has so many problems,” said Cohen. “There are problems along the Afghan frontier, violence in the cities, an economy in shambles, the crisis with India, a nuclear program, inadequate democratisation measures, it’s like a man sitting on a keg of dynamite, smoking a cigarette while people are shooting at him. In that case, which problem do you tackle?”

 

For UNHCR staffers who work with more than 1.8 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, 400,000 of whom live in Baluchistan, the problem of their abducted colleague is a critical one.

 

In a press statement released on Monday, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres expressed his “solidarity with John's family,” and assured them that the agency is “doing everything possible to secure his release.”

 

In one corner of the United States, there is a family that certainly hopes all will be done to get their son released.

 

When FRANCE 24 tried to reach Solecki’s father, Ralph Stefan Solecki, by phone at his home in South Orange, New Jersey, an evidently distraught male voice on the other end of the line simply said, “no, no, nothing at this point, nothing right now,” before adding, “thank you for your call and concern.”

 

Date created : 2009-02-05

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