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Gunmen kidnap American UN official in Pakistan

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[February 02, 2009]  QUETTA, Pakistan (AP) -- Gunmen kidnapped an American U.N. worker and killed his driver in southwestern Pakistan on Monday, underscoring the security threat in a country wracked by al-Qaida violence and rising criminality.

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry called the abduction a "dastardly terrorist act," but it was not clear who seized John Solecki, the head of the U.N. refugee office in the city of Quetta, as he traveled to work.

Quetta is the capital of Baluchistan province, which partly borders Afghanistan. The dusty city is believed to be a possible hiding place for Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders, who are thought to have fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Southwestern Pakistan is also the scene of a low-level insurgency driven by nationalist groups wanting more autonomy for Baluchistan province. But, unlike Taliban and al-Qaida militants who control pockets of the northwest, the Baluch groups are not known to target foreigners. Police said they could not recall another foreigner being kidnapped in Quetta.

Senior police official Khalid Masood said Solecki was an American who had worked in Quetta for more than two years. The U.N. confirmed Solecki had been kidnapped, but would not specify where he was from. In a statement, the U.N. information office in Pakistan conveyed "extreme shock and dismay" at the kidnapping and the killing of the driver, Syed Hashim.

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

Authorities sealed exit routes from the city, said Wazir Khan Nasir, another officer. Police in the border town of Chaman said they were checking vehicles to prevent the kidnappers from whisking the captive to Afghanistan.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said American officials were looking into the reports.

It was not immediately clear what impact the abduction would have on U.N. work in Pakistan, if any. The bombing of Islamabad's Marriott hotel in September prompted new U.N. rules prohibiting expatriate staff in Pakistan from living with their children in parts of the country, including Quetta.

General crime has been on the rise in many parts of the country, including kidnappings for ransom. An Iranian diplomat was abducted in the northwestern city of Peshawar last year, and other foreigners and Afghans have also been taken.

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The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has worked for years in Baluchistan helping Afghans who have fled violence in their homeland.

At the scene of the kidnapping in the Chaman Housing Society neighborhood, a UNHCR Land Cruiser was rammed against a wall. At least one bullet hole was visible on the vehicle.

Solecki did not have a police escort while he was traveling, Masood said.

"We have learned that he usually did not like to have an escort with him on his way to the office," Masood said.

Nasir said Solecki's office and home had security, including police.

"We had given adequate security to him," Nasir said. "We also had a meeting with him, and we had fulfilled all requirements he had discussed with us."

[Associated Press; By ABDUL SATTAR]

Associated Press writers Asif Shahzad and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad and Matiullah Achakzai in Chaman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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