Authorities search for kidnapped worker

QUETTA, Pakistan – Authorities searched for an American U.N. worker kidnapped Monday in southwestern Pakistan in an attack that underscored the security threats in the country as it battles al-Qaida militants.

The government called the abduction a “dastardly terrorist act,” but police said it was not clear whether Islamic militants, criminals seeking a ransom payment or members of a regional separatist group were responsible.

Gunmen seized John Solecki, head of the U.N. refugee office in the city of Quetta, as he traveled to work Monday morning, and shot and killed his driver, U.N. and Pakistani officials said.

Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan province, which partly borders Afghanistan. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has worked for three decades in the region helping hundreds of thousands of Afghans fleeing violence in their homeland.

While a violent region, it has largely been spared the al-Qaida and Taliban insurgency wracking much of northwestern Pakistan, where several foreigners have been attacked or kidnapped in recent months.

In August, Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in the northwest, narrowly survived an attack on her vehicle in Peshawar by suspected militants. In November, gunmen shot and killed American aid worker Stephen Vance in the same city.

Senior police officer Khalid Masood said Solecki has worked in Quetta for more than two years. Ron Redmond, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva, confirmed he is an American citizen.

At the scene of the kidnapping in an upscale neighborhood, a UNHCR Land Cruiser with at least one bullet hole was rammed against a wall.Soon after the attack, authorities sealed

exit routes from the city, officers said. Police also beefed up patrols and security checks along roads leading to Afghanistan, feaing Solecki may be taken there.

Quetta has been mentioned by Afghan officials as a likely hiding place for Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders who are thought to have fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Baluchistan is also the scene of a low-level insurgency driven by nationalist groups wanting more regional autonomy.

General crime has also been on the rise

in many parts of Pakistan, including kidnappings for ransom. An Iranian diplomat was abducted in Peshawar last year, and other foreigners and Afghans also have been taken.

The United Nations expressed “extreme shock and dismay” at the kidnapping and the killing of the driver.

“We strongly condemn this attack on humanitarian workers in Pakistan who have been doing their utmost to deliver their humanitarian mission,” it said in the statement.