Concern mounts over U.S. aid worker kidnapped in Pakistan

March 19, 2009

Concern is mounting over the health of John Solecki, an American working for the UNHCR, who was kidnapped from the Pakistani city of Quetta 45 days ago.

The UN said it was worried about an apparent deterioration in his health after a little known Baluch group, which says it is holding him, called a local news agency saying he was seriously ill with a heart condition.

Three deadlines set by a group calling itself the Baluchistan Liberation United Front have passed and a new one was meant to end on Thursday. The group wants the release of 1,000 Baluch prisoners, including women, said to be held in Pakistan government cells.

With little sign of any resolution Pakistani media are questioning the seriousness of the effort to secure Solecki’s release. Neither the Baluch government nor the government in Islamabad had taken the task seriously, the liberal Daily Times said. “No matter who kidnapped Solecki, observers say the government cannot absolve itself of the primary responsibility of protecting all those in Pakistan’s territory,” it said.

And the News wrote of the “casual cruelty” involved in picking up an unarmed aid worker on his way to work. It said there were credible reports that extremist groups had a a sort of “rate card” of potential victims. grading them by their public profile and relative value. And since the number of foreigners on Pakistani soil is dwindling fast, the value of those who remain such as Solecki is high. 

“Cheap targets are no longer of interest. As fewer and fewer foreigners choose to work here their market value is increased by their scarcity and they have become a high-value commodity to be traded for the best price,” it said. So the group holding him has been making demands that would be difficult for any government to accept, including a resolution of the issue of Baluch independence.

The stretched-out abduction drama is being played against the backdrop of increasing U.S. attention on Baluchistan, which is where it believes the founder of the Afghan Taliban Mullah Muhammad Omar is based, directing the insurgency in southern Afghanistan. 

 As highlighted in a previous post, the New York Times reported the Obama administration was considering expanding its covert war in Pakistan to strike at Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan where it believes Mullah Omar runs his shura. Up until now, the United States has focused its unmanned Predator drone campaign on Pakistan’s tribal areas in the northwest, carrying out missile strikes on suspected al Qaeda and Taliban figures and their hideouts.

One U.S. official played down the idea of widening the strikes to Baluchistan, saying it was not being “put forward seriously”, according to this Reuters story. ”You can’t use the same tactics in a settled, populous area … where the government has a great deal of penetration and control as you would in a sparsely populated area where the government has limited presence,” this official said.

Pakistan  which is already chafing at U.S. missile strikes in the northwest has rejected  claims that Baluchistan was a safe haven for the Taliban.  The Islamists did not have political and tribal support in the province, an inspector general of the Frontier Corps said.

[Photo of a protest in Quetta against the killing of a Shi'ite leader] 




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