American UN hostage released in Pakistan
An American UN official kidnapped in Pakistan has been released safe and sound after a two-month ordeal, hoping to be reunited with his family as soon as possible, officials said Sunday.
John Solecki, the local head of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), was snatched at gunpoint in Quetta, the capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan, on February 2. His driver was killed during the abduction.
It was the most high-profile Western kidnapping in Pakistan since 2002, when US journalist Daniel Pearl was snatched and beheaded by Al-Qaeda militants.
"I can confirm that he has been released. He has been released about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Quetta," UN spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis told AFP by telephone.
"A UN team has met him. He seems all right. The priority will be to get him medical attention," the spokeswoman said.
"We're going to reunite him with his family as soon as possible," said Pagonis, adding that Solecki had already spoken to his relatives.
Solecki's 83-year-old mother had urged the Pakistani public to help secure her son's release in an audio message released in February, saying that she and her 91-year-old husband had visited their son's friends in Baluchistan.
"I'm very pleased that John Solecki ... has been released today. I'm very happy," said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
Speaking in Paris, Ban expressed his "sincere appreciation" to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghan head of state Hamid Karzai and "many other people" for "working tirelessly" to secure Solecki's release.
Pakistan's interior ministry chief, Rehman Malik, confirmed that Solecki had been released after an ordeal lasting nearly nine weeks and confirmed that preparations were being made to reunite him with his family.
"He has been found. He will be examined in a combined military hospital," Malik told the private Geo television station in a telephone interview.
"He wants to leave as quickly as possible to be with his family. We will make arrangements so that he can reunite with his family," he said.
His safety is a welcome piece of good news for the beleaguered government in Pakistan, battling a wave of deadly extremist Islamist violence and which was criticised by Poland over the beheading of a Polish hostage in February.
Pakistan had condemned the kidnapping and offered a reward of one million rupees (12,610 dollars) for information leading to Solecki's rescue.
Malik said government efforts helped secure the official's freedom.
"We used all our resources to get his release," Malik told Geo.
Security forces tailed the abductors but negotiations for Solecki's release were conducted through a committee which included influential tribal elders, the interior ministry chief said.
The details surrounding his release were not immediately clear and neither did Solecki appear in public. Nor was it clear when he would leave the country.
Baluchistan police chief Asif Nawaz Janjua told AFP Solecki had been found "safe and sound".
A shadowy organisation claiming to hold Solecki, the Baluchistan Liberation United Front (BLUF), had threatened to kill him unless the government freed more than 1,100 "prisoners" but numerous deadlines came and went.
Pakistan expressed hope in late March that it would soon secure Solecki's release and had set up a committee to investigate the captors' demands.
The United Nations frequently expressed concern about Solecki, who was in poor health, appealing for him to receive immediate professional medical care and expressing their willingness to speak directly to his captors.
A grainy video released by the kidnappers and shown on Pakistani television channels in February showed a blindfolded Solecki appealing for his release.
Hundreds of people have died in the oil and gas-rich province since late 2004, when rebels rose up to demand political autonomy and a greater share of profits from natural resources.
Baluchistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan, has also been hit by attacks blamed on Taliban militants.
Kidnappings of foreigners in Baluchistan are rare, although they have multiplied in northwest Pakistan, which also borders Afghanistan.