QUETTA, Pakistan (AFP) – Suspected Islamist militants Monday kidnapped a senior American UN official and killed his driver in Pakistan, in the most high-profile recent Western abduction to blight the nation.
John Solecki, head of the UN refugee agency in Quetta, was abducted as he travelled to work in the city, the capital of Baluchistan province bordering Afghanistan.
Unknown gunmen ambushed his vehicle, which was marked with United Nations insignia, opened fire and killed his driver, UN officials and police said.
“He is an American national and his name is John Solecki. He is head of the sub-office of UNHCR-Quetta,” local police official Khalid Masood told AFP, in reference to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“They opened fire. His driver was wounded and died on the way to hospital,” Masood added.
“The gunmen took him (Solecki) away to an unknown location.”
A white jeep bearing the light blue UNHCR markings lay smashed into a brick wall. A small pool of blood could be seen on the pavement next to the driver’s door, according to an AFP photographer at the scene.
Baluchistan province has rich energy resources but is rife with regional insurgency, sectarian violence and attacks blamed on the Taliban.
Diplomatic officials in Islamabad and an aid worker speaking to AFP under cover of anonymity confirmed Solecki was American.
A UN spokeswoman confirmed the head of UNHCR in Quetta had been kidnapped and gave his name, but refused to confirm his nationality.
Foreign kidnappings in Baluchistan are rare, although they are a frequent hazard in northwest Pakistan, which also borders Afghanistan.
The last foreign abduction reported in Baluchistan was in 1991 when a group of Afghan fighters kidnapped three Chinese engineers and took them across the border into Afghanistan. They were later released.
“We strongly condemn this attack on humanitarian workers in Pakistan who have been doing their utmost to deliver their humanitarian mission,” said UN spokeswoman Ishrat Rizvi in Islamabad.
Deputy Inspector General of the Baluchistan police, Wazir Khan Nasir, said it was “too early to say who might be involved” in the abduction but that the authorities had extended adequate security to UN agencies in the area.
“We had a meeting with them and provided all the security needed by the UN in Quetta,” he said.
Another police official told AFP on condition of anonymity that “religious elements” — a euphemism for Islamist militants — may have been involved.
The driver of the UN vehicle was a Shiite, he said.
Hundreds of people have died in insurgent unrest in Baluchistan since 2004, when rebels began demanding political autonomy and a greater share of profits from the region’s natural resources.
Quetta city police chief Humayun Jogezai said paramilitary officers had been alerted after the abduction.
“We have alerted the Frontier Corps and they are ready to act swiftly on any tip-off about the man who has been kidnapped,” he told AFP.
“Such incidents have been frequent in North West Frontier Province where Taliban militants are active, but not in Baluchistan,” former senior interior ministry official Tasneem Noorani told private television channel Geo.
“The kidnapping could also be a commercial enterprise — for ransom,” he speculated.
In Pakistan’s northwest, gunmen kidnapped an Iranian diplomat, Hashmatullah Atharzadeh, and killed his guard while he was on his way to the consulate in the city of Peshawar last November.
A Canadian journalist was also abducted in November in Pakistan’s northern tribal region.
Suspected Taliban militants kidnapped Afghan Consul General Abdul Khaliq Farahi near Peshawar nearly two months ago and are still holding him.
Pakistan’s military has been waging a major campaign in the tribal-dominated area against Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants, who are accused of launching attacks on international troops across the border in Afghanistan.