John Solecki: A view from the Pakistani press
Abduction of UN official
MILITANCY and violent crime have risen dramatically in recent years. Life and property are at risk across the country and the state has failed its citizens. But when security personnel feel insecure and high-profile politicians fear for their lives, it comes as no surprise that ordinary people are at the mercy of those toting guns and bombs. This is an appalling state of affairs, and much thought and all available resources must be channelled towards finding a solution that is even halfway satisfactory. The huge problems involved in fighting insurgencies in Swat and the tribal areas are understandable. But there are fewer excuses for letting gun-toting terrorists in major cities escape the security net.
Those who come to this country to help people in distress cannot be assured safety either. Monday’s ambush in Quetta that left an employee of the UNHCR dead and led to the abduction of the refugee agency’s Quetta office chief is more than a personal tragedy for the families of those who were attacked. It could have wider repercussions as well. It is an ominous development that sends all the wrong signals to foreign and local agencies providing aid to those who desperately need assistance. As it is many NGOs engaged in vocational, educational and healthcare services in the NWFP and the tribal belt have been forced to leave in the face of threats and attacks by the Taliban. An assault on an international NGO in Mansehra in February 2008 left four staff members dead and many others wounded. In November last year, the UN’s World Food Programme reported that nearly 900 tons of essential supplies “destined for the undernourished” in Pakistan and Afghanistan had been looted in the NWFP the previous month. If such relief programmes come to a halt, tens of thousands of people with no other means of support will lose their only hope for survival. This cannot be allowed to happen in a country where the number of internally displaced persons is on the rise and where poverty is endemic. NGOs and relief agencies must be provided adequate protection.
No trace had been found until Tuesday afternoon of John Solecki, the UNHCR Quetta chief. The identity of his captors remains unknown and there is considerable room for speculation as to who they might be. Given that the incident took place in Balochistan, it is being said they could be associated with the Taliban, with Baloch nationalists or a criminal gang. Mr Solecki apparently did not ask for a police escort but it is time that heightened security measures were put in place for all high-profile relief agency officials in Pakistan. At the same time, no effort should be spared to ensure his recovery and bring the culprits to book.
The Balochistan head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), John Solecki, was kidnapped on Monday when he was going unguarded in his car to his office in Chaman in Balochistan. Mr Solecki was an extremely “valuable” victim because of his status as a UN official and his American nationality. Therefore the reaction from the UN will be most inconvenient for Pakistan in so far as the UNHCR is crucial to Pakistan’s efforts to take care of war-displaced refugees. The UN has the option of terminating its missions if its personnel are not seen to be even minimally secure.
Terrorism thrives on kidnapping for ransom. Its operations need money even if each branch-line cell has its own independent revenue through extortion. We have seen the rise of one warlord after the other when their kidnappings and “extortion notes” were either ignored or not effectively opposed by the state. The rise of Baitullah Mehsud is owed to the kidnapping of Chinese engineers from a project in the Tribal Areas. The problem with high-profile abduction is that the state can no longer adhere to its stance of “not negotiating” with the terrorists when it comes under pressure to pay off and get the abducted person back.
Baitullah Mehsud’s second colossal addition to his treasury was the untold sum he received from Islamabad for letting go of Pakistan’s ambassador to Kabul. Mr Tariq Azizuddin was released in May last year by the Taliban after three months of capture, and the government kept on denying that it had succumbed to both “swap” and “payment”. But the facts are certainly otherwise. When the victim is an important person the terrorists will additionally want the release of its militants arrested by the state.
Kidnapping therefore provides funding and the recovery of arrested activists. The Taliban have an Iranian diplomat — Hashmatullah, an Iranian Commercial Attaché in Peshawar — in their custody. Desperate to find him, the government last raided a locality in Karachi to retrieve him alive. In the battle that ensued, two policemen died while 35 men belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other banned religious outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi were arrested. The last named ally of Al Qaeda routinely resorts to kidnappings in Karachi for revenue. The Iranian diplomat is still missing. The conclusion is inescapable: until the state becomes strong enough in the face of the terrorist challenge, “normal” activities, like trade, sports and finally diplomacy itself, will come under risk.
THE NEWS INTERNATIONAL
After Peshawar, the city of Quetta seems to be falling into the hands of militants. The kidnapping of the chief of the UNHCR in the city is the latest evidence of this. John Solecki, an American national, was taken away by unknown persons after his vehicle was ambushed in a daring attack. His driver was killed. Mr Solecki appeared to be moving without an escort. The UN has made a call for the immediate release of the humanitarian worker and Pakistan authorities have closed the Chaman border to prevent the official being whisked away into Afghanistan. It seems likely that, as has happened in the past, the militants who presumably hold the UN official will attempt to use him in an exchange deal of some kind or to press for other demands. It seems that even from the heart of our major cities, people can be taken away at will. The situation is disastrous for more reasons than one. The kidnapping will add to the international image of Pakistan as one of the world’s most dangerous places. This in turn will have an impact on spheres such as investment, which are crucial to the economic stability of Pakistan. The law and order situation is now obviously a key factor in the failing economic situation, with major rating agencies lowering the standing of Pakistan.
There are other aspects. The abduction will mean humanitarian work will slow down still further. Past threats and attacks on the offices of organizations engaged in relief efforts, such as that on the Mansehra office of PLAN last year, have already led to many groups opting to cut down operations in Pakistan or quit the country altogether. This has had an adverse impact on communities hit by the 2005 quake and also people in the least developed parts of Pakistan, such as Balochistan, who received some support from humanitarian groups. Past threats have led to the UN reducing activities in the province. In many cases local NGOs, who have also faced warnings of dire action, particularly against women workers, have also followed suit. Pakistan today risks moving into complete international isolation. As news of the kidnapping makes its way around the world, there will be repercussions. The Islamabad government must wake up to the reality that it is in danger of becoming a state no one wishes to venture into. Something must be done to end this swift descent into anarchy.
THE NATION, LAHORE
Unrest in Balochistan
THE incident of kidnapping of John Solecki, head of the UN refugee agency in Quetta, by unknown miscreants on Sunday, reflects poorly on the law and order situation in the provincial capital. The gunmen followed Mr Solecki, who was heading for his office, and opened fire on his vehicle on reaching Chaman Housing Society that resulted in the death of his driver. The gunmen afterwards took Mr Solecki to some unknown location. Though the law enforcement agencies have arrested 15 persons thought to be involved in the incident, no clues to the identity of the kidnappers or indicating the place where Mr Solecki is kept could be found. Given the history of violence in the region, one cannot help but think of elements like religious extremists, some militant group with a nationalist agenda, and lastly a foreign hand. Whoever the culprits, the motive and the intention is the same, of spreading terror among the people and destabilizing Pakistan.
The ease with which the miscreants picked up John Solecki and killed the driver is another factor that should be given serious thought. For one thing, it shows that even lives of such high profile persons are not safe, and for another it points to the strength these non-state forces have been gaining over time. Along with this, the rising incidents of targeted killings, mostly with a sectarian tinge, also evoke concern. A few days back a businessman was shot dead just for being a member of some religious sect. Besides, cases of torture and killings of media persons keep on happening quite frequently. The pity is that the heavy presence of the FC in the province have failed to stop the menace. However in the larger context, it all boils down to the government’s strategy of bringing normalcy to the province. Cases where hardcore terrorists are involved in brutal killings merely to create unrest, the government must rein in with an iron first. But in order to find a permanent solution to the ills that plague Balochistan, the government would have to adopt the approach of dialogue and socio-economic development of the province, something it promised after coming to power. Sadly enough the government’s subsequent indifference only roused passions not only among the nationalists, but the general population as well. Unless the government fulfils its promises, peace in the region would remain an elusive ideal.
Meanwhile, all efforts should be concentrated on Mr Solecki’s recovery, who was on a vital mission of providing shelter to the internally displaced persons. The police, along with the intelligence apparatus in the area, should join hands to bring the culprits to book.
THE BUSINESS RECORDER, KARACHI
Abduction of UN official
EDITORIAL (February 04 2009):
Kidnapping for ransom is not being ruled out but abduction of the head of the UNHCR sub-office in Quetta on the eve of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Pakistan lends the incident an intriguing dimension. On Monday morning, as John Solecki drove to his office, gunmen waylaid his vehicle, shot his driver and took him away.
Believed to be a US national he would generally travel in and around Quetta un-escorted by security detail. His fearlessness most probably stemmed from his confidence that Quetta is safe for foreigners, for no such incident had happened there in many many years. No doubt Quetta is often rocked by sectarian violence and a kind of low insurgency is rife in a larger part of Balochistan but kidnapping for ransom is not common in that province.
So far no one has claimed responsibility for the abduction, in sharp contrast to the usual procedure when kidnappers, if they belong to a so-called liberation group, take no time in announcing their hand in such a high-profile act. All such kidnappings, for ransom or other perceived objectives, are unacceptable. But it is all the more so in Pakistan, where over the years the UNHCR has put in a great amount of hard work and dedication.
Since the early 80s when Afghan refugees started pouring in thousands-a-day to escape Soviet invasion the UNHCR arrived here and set up its office. Over the next decade it became the UN’s biggest operation to look after some three million Afghan refugees. Long after the Soviet defeat, over a million of them are still in Pakistan; their departure being delayed in deference to the feeling that their forced deportation would bring them no relief.
Quetta is one of the places from where the UNHCR is looking after a number of Afghan refugee camps and John Solecki was in charge. Since the Marriott suicide bombing incident last year, the UN staff has been ordered to evacuate their families. A question comes to mind: Is the UNHCR official’s abduction aimed at subverting Ban Ki-moon’s visit reportedly aimed at moving forward on Pakistan government’s request to probe Benazir Bhutto’s assassination? The answer to this is that even if it was so it is not likely to derail the UN commitment.
Plausibly, the abduction fits into the scheming mission of the quarters who are working, mostly at international level, to project Pakistan a failed state. They had carried the day recently at the UN Security Council by successfully securing a ban on some of the Pakistani outfits.
Balochistan being the soft belly an occurrence like the abduction of a senior UN official at its capital has a great propaganda potential to harness. To this, vigilance is the only answer. We hope the provincial law-enforcing agencies would rise to the challenge and leave no stone unturned in recovering the abducted official.
THE POST, LAHORE
The kidnapping of UNHCR official, John Solecki, in Quetta is another wake-up call to the law enforcement agencies. Solecki was on his way to office from his residence when gunmen in a white car opened fire on his vehicle, seriously injuring Solecki’s driver. It is surprising to note that Solecki, who happens to be an American national, was without a police escort at the time of the incident. So far, no militant group has claimed responsibility of the kidnapping, adding to the difficulty in determining the perpetrators of the crime. The incident clearly points to the poor law and order situation in general and the absence of security for foreign nationals in particular. After the incident has happened, placing the law-enforcement personnel on high alert and erecting pickets has become a routine practice of the security agencies. Understandably, the UN office in Islamabad has strongly condemned the abduction of Solecki and the killing of his driver. As a security measure, according to a local police official, the authorities have been asked to close the Chaman border with Afghanistan. While it seems too early to say who might be involved in the abduction the involvement of militants cannot be ruled out. UN chief Ban Ki-moon’s statement calling for an immediate release of Mr Solecki should be heeded to by the government and security officials. UN deputy spokeswoman Marie Okabe is right when he says that “such acts are aimed, not only against UN personnel, but also against those they serve selflessly and with dedication.”
Unfortunately, such incidents are not new in Pakistan’s troubled areas and reflect badly on the country’s reputation the world over. In November last year, a senior Iranian diplomat had been kidnapped and his bodyguard killed in Peshawar, a day after a US official was shot dead along with his driver in the nearby University Town locality. The abducted diplomat, Heshmatollah Attarzadeh, had been serving as commercial attache at the Iranian Consulate in Peshawar. In September last year, Afghan Consul-General in Peshawar, Abdul Khaliq Farahi, was kidnapped and his driver shot dead for resisting assailants. Mr Farahi was posted in Peshawar after the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. In early the same year, the Taliban had kidnapped Pakistan’s Ambassador to Afghanistan, Tariq Azizuddin, and had demanded release of Taliban commander Mullah Mansoor Dadullah who was captured after a heavy exchange of gunfire with the security forces near the Afghan border in Balochistan. He was released by the militants reportedly in exchange for several Taliban fighters.
These incidents show the failure of government’s efforts in controlling militancy in the country. It is a fact that controlling these incidents is the primary responsibility of the provincial government, but the federal government should also coordinate their efforts with the Balochistan government for the elimination of such acts of lawlessness. UNHCR officials’ kidnapping could be a reaction of the US missile and drone attacks in the tribal areas. Security forces should make hectic efforts to recover the kidnapped UNHCR official. Any delay in this regard will help those elements that are bent upon damaging Pakistan’s security apparatus. There are certain steps that can prevent such incidents from happening, such as laying an elaborate network of intelligence gathering. Since insurgents do not operate in mass formations as armies do, their movement in the area can be restricted by an increased presence of the intelligence agencies and the police. The government of Pakistan should ensure safe release of the kidnapped UNHCR official sand accelerate its efforts of fighting the extremists to prevent such incidents from happening in future.