Former UK terror suspect aiding UN over Baluchistan hostage
Former UK terror suspect aiding UN over Baluchistan hostage• American captured eight weeks ago in poor health
• Kidnappers want Pakistan to free 1,100 prisoners
Saeed Shah in Islamabad and Sandra Laville
The Guardian, Saturday 21 March 2009
A British resident recently acquitted of terrorism charges is playing a key role in efforts to secure the release of a United Nations official kidnapped in Pakistan.
Hyrbyair Marri, a dissident from the tribal heartland of Baluchistan, has been asked by the UN to use his influence with the kidnappers of American John Solecki, who was captured at gunpoint in the city of Quetta nearly eight weeks ago and is believed to be in failing health.
Marri, who lives in exile in London, is a member of a prominent Baluch family and for many years was viewed by the Pakistani state as a terrorist. In 2007 the British government, following a request from the government of former president Pervez Musharraf, charged Marri with organising terrorist attacks, but the jury could not reach a verdict. Earlier this month the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to pursue a further trial.
It has now emerged that Hyrbyair Marri and his father, Khair Baksh Marri, the 90-year old head of the powerful Marri clan, are assisting in attempts to free Solecki, an employee of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
The UN has approached both father and son in an attempt to open up a dialogue with the Baluchistan Liberation United Front (BLUF), a previously unknown group which has claimed responsibilty for the abduction. Fears for Solecki’s life grew this week after the passing of a deadline set by the group, which had demanded the Pakistani government release hundreds of Baluch political prisoners in return for Solecki’s freedom.
“We have been in contact with various families [tribal leaders],” said Jennifer Pagonis, spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Islamabad. “We have also approached the Marri family because of their standing in the Baluch community. We asked them for any assistance they could provide in securing John’s release.
“We have talked to Hyrbyair Marri, we have talked to the Nawab [Khair Baksh] Marri, they’ve all been helpful. We appreciate their support.”
The oil-rich province of Baluchistan has been home to successive insurgencies since the 1970s. But until now foreigners had not been targeted by the secular nationalist groups who have sought international sympathy for their cause.
The region’s main armed groups have condemned the kidnapping.
Khair Baksh Marri and his sons are associated with the Baluchistan Liberation Army, which was declared a terrorist organisation in 2006 by the Pakistani and British governments.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a journalist and commentator based in Quetta, said that the BLUF appeared to be a new breed of rebel group, youngsters who had adopted more radical methods than the likes of the Baluchistan Liberation Army. But the Marri family remain an influential force in the region, he said, adding that Hyrbyair Marri had issued statements that had been instrumental in extending deadlines set by the kidnappers in the past.
“Hyrbyair Marri is acceptable to the armed groups, that’s made him the focus, the most important person right now [in the negotiations],” said Akbar. “He is the only man who can influence the BLUF.”
The UN has been unable to hold direct talks with Solecki’s kidnappers, while the Pakistani authorities have been unable to determine who the BLUF are. In setting the latest ultimatum of a 48-hour cut-off, on Monday this week, BLUF spokesman Shahak Baloch said that his group had given the government a list of 1,109 people including 141 women it wanted released, but blamed UN officials for not showing “seriousness”.
“His condition is deteriorating, we are providing him every possible medical treatment but it is making no difference,” Baloch said.
In pursuing the 2007 prosecution of Hyrbyair Marri, human rights campaigners had accused Britain of doing Musharraf’s work. The CPS went ahead, despite the newly re-elected Pakistan government telling the court that they no longer viewed Marri as a terrorist. The Pakistani high commissioner to London made it clear that Marri was a leading figure in peace negotiations between the government and Baluchistan, a largely tribal area in the south-west of Pakistan which is rich in oil and whose people were suppressed for years by Musharraf’s government