Kidnapped American UN official released

American UN official John Solecki, the local head of the UNHCR in Pakistan, was freed on Saturday. Solecki was kidnapped in the southern city of Quetta two months ago.


AFP - An American UN official kidnapped in Pakistan has been released tired but apparently safe and well following a two-month hostage ordeal, UN and Pakistani officials said Sunday.

John Solecki, the local head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), had been snatched at gunpoint in Quetta, the capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan, on February 2. His driver was killed during the abduction.

It was the most high-profile Western kidnapping in Pakistan since 2002, when US journalist Daniel Pearl was snatched and beheaded by Al-Qaeda militants.

"I can confirm that he has been released. He has been released about 50 kilometres (32 miles) south of Quetta," UN spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told AFP by telephone.

"He is tired but he seems okay," she added.

"A UN team has met him. He seems all right. The priority will be to get him medical attention," the UN spokesperson said.

Pakistan's interior ministry chief, Rehman Malik, confirmed the official's release after an ordeal lasting nearly nine weeks, and said preparations were being made to reunite him with his family as quickly as possible.

"He has been found. He will be examined in a combined military hospital," Malik told the private Geo television station in a telephone interview.

"We are making arrangements so that he can reunite him and his family as soon as possible," he added.

Solecki's 83-year-old mother had urged the Pakistani public to help secure her son's release in an audio message released in February, saying that she and her 91-year-old husband had visited their son's friends in Baluchistan.

Baluchistan police chief Asif Nawaz Janjua told AFP Solecki had been found "safe and sound".

The details surrounding his release were not immediately clear and neither did Solecki appear in public.

A shadowy organisation claiming to hold Solecki, the Baluchistan Liberation United Front (BLUF), had threatened to kill him unless the government freed more than 1,100 "prisoners" but numerous deadlines came and went.

The private Pakistani Online news agency, which had received messages from BLUF throughout Solecki's time in captivity, also reported his release.

"I received a call from BLUF spokesman Shahak Baloch who said John Solecki had been released on humanitarian grounds," Irfan Saeed, the agency's Quetta bureau chief, told AFP.

He quoted Baloch as saying the UN official had been dropped in Khad Koocha town of Masting district, south of Quetta.

The United Nations frequently expressed concern about Solecki, who was in poor health, appealing for him to receive immediate professional medical care and expressing their willingness to speak directly to his captors.

A grainy video released by the kidnappers and shown on Pakistani television channels in February showed a blindfolded Solecki appealing for his release.

His safety is a welcome piece of good news for the beleaguered government in Pakistan, battling a wave of deadly extremist Islamist violence and which was criticised by Poland over the beheading of a Polish hostage in February.

Pakistan has condemned the kidnapping as a "dastardly terrorist act" and offered a reward of one million rupees (12,610 dollars) for information leading to Solecki's rescue.

Pakistan expressed hope in late March that it would soon secure Solecki's release and had set up a committee to investigate the captors' demands.

Hundreds of people have died in the oil and gas-rich province since late 2004, when rebels rose up to demand political autonomy and a greater share of profits from natural resources.

Baluchistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, has also been hit by attacks blamed on Taliban militants.

Kidnappings of foreigners in Baluchistan are rare, although they have multiplied in northwest Pakistan, which also borders Afghanistan.

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