Kidnappings in NWFP
The News, November 15, 2008
Our fourth-floor office in a tall building gave us a vantage position to watch the fireworks in the nearby Qayyum Stadium, named after the NWFP's late chief minister and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's controversial interior minister Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan. It was a perfect setting. The sun had set and the approaching night and the cloudy weather made the sky dazzle with the exploding pyrotechnics. The 10,000 or so spectators inside the sprawling sports complex and many more outside were enjoying the spectacle because Peshawar, disfigured by frequent bomb explosions and prone to violence, was experiencing such a spectacular display of fireworks after a long time.
However, the joy was short-lived. In the midst of the noisy fireworks, there was a deafening detonation that drowned every other sound. A colleague commented that this one was different and of the other kind. We knew what he meant. Soon afterwards, a cloud of dust and smoke arose from near the main gate of the Qayyum Stadium. Those managing the fireworks continued to do their job as they hadn't realised that a bomb explosion had taken place. Soon afterwards, it became clear that a suicide bomber had struck. The show was over as people ran for cover and relatives and friends began a frantic search for their near and dear ones who had gone to the stadium to attend the closing ceremony of the 3rd Inter-Provincial Games. The organisers and team officials from Pakistan's four provinces had to ensure that the 1,200 sportsmen and sportswomen taking part in the games were evacuated unharmed.
It was obvious that those behind the suicide bombing that killed four people wanted to send a message that they would not tolerate any activity that gave the impression of normalcy returning to the troubled North-West Frontier Province. The grand sports event in Peshawar was meant to show that people in the province and the adjoining tribal areas wanted to enjoy such an activity. The games' organisers, led by the indefatigable provincial sports and culture minister Syed Aqil Shah, and the ANP-PPP coalition government aimed at using sports to heal the wounds and promote peace. This was unacceptable to the militants, who apparently weren't keen to harm the players or they would have attacked the cyclists who took part in the Mardan-to-Peshawar cycle race. The suicide bombing took place after the prize-giving ceremony presided over by Governor , Owais Ahmad Ghani, and at the time of the concluding fireworks. The bomber could have struck earlier if he wanted to kill the players, who included scores of female athletes, none of whom ran and played in shorts, when no VVIP was visiting the venue and security was relatively lax.
The ANP leaders, facing the brunt of terrorist attacks following the collapse of the ANP-led NWFP government's peace accord with the Maulana Fazlullah-headed Taliban in Swat, could have been a target of the suicide bomber as is being claimed but they could be targeted anywhere and not just at such a sports event. By attacking the games that brought together players and officials from all over the country, the masterminds of the suicide bombing clearly wanted to widen the gulf between the NWFP and rest of Pakistan, destabilise the government and show to the world that the militants weren't out of business despite sustained military operations against them, and could still strike anywhere and anytime.
The militants are obviously spoilsports as the suicide bombing reinforced the impression that no normal sports or cultural activity can take place in the NWFP nowadays. Though Syed Aqil Shah has announced that the NWFP would play host to the next national games in Peshawar in November 2009, one doesn't know what to expect in a year's time due to the spiralling violence in the province. The Peshawar bombing at a major sports event would also provide another reason to foreign teams, cricket, hockey or other sports, not to visit Pakistan. Peshawar had already been struck off from the list of places where foreign teams could stay and play in Pakistan. It is tragic that Peshawar and the Frontier, a land made famous for its friendly people and hospitality, is now referred to as a place where outsiders are unwelcome and at risk.
Such an impression has been reinforced due to the recent spate of kidnappings of a number of foreigners and the murder of Stephen D Vance, the 52-year old American contractor for USAID tasked to bring aid to the tribal areas. Mr Vance's killing will certainly raise questions about the advisability of posting Americans in Peshawar and in the rest of NWFP. In case, the Americans associated with the US-funded $750-million development project for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) aren't able to stay in Peshawar or visit the sites of the schemes, questions would be asked about the project's monitoring to ensure that American money is properly spent.
The kidnappings are a source of serious concern. In fact, Pakistanis, both resourceful and not-so-resourceful, are also being kidnapped in ever greater numbers for ransom and the government is helpless in preventing kidnappings or recovering the victims. Often the families of kidnapped persons are advised to cut deals with the kidnappers and pay them ransom as the police in the districts or the political administration in case of the tribal areas are seldom in a position to offer help.
Of particular concern are the recent kidnappings of Iranian and Afghan diplomats and Chinese engineers. While the government and its scores of intelligence agencies and law-enforcement departments were still struggling to locate Afghanistan's ambassador-designate Abdul Khaliq Farahi, who was kidnapped from Peshawar's expensive Hayatabad locality on Sept 22, another kidnapping took place, and this time it was an Iranian diplomat. Heshmatollah Attarzadeh, commercial attaché at Iran's consulate in Peshawar, was also kidnapped from Hayatabad. His Pakistani police guard, Sajjad Hussain Shah, was shot dead by the kidnappers. The ruthlessness of the kidnappers could be gauged from the fact that Farahi's driver, who was an Afghan national, was killed and so was Mr Vance's Pakistani driver. Two other important Afghans have also been kidnapped and are untraceable. One is Ziaul Haq Ahadi, the younger brother of Afghanistan's finance minister Anwarul Haq Ahadi, who was snatched from Hayatabad, and a former media adviser to the Afghan government, Akhtar Jan Kohistani, who was kidnapped in Chitral and reportedly taken to his native Nuristan province in Afghanistan.
As if this wasn't enough, two Chinese engineers were kidnapped in the NWFP's Upper Dir district and spirited away to the Taliban-held area in Swat's Matta tehsil. One of them, Long Xiaowei, subsequently escaped but Zhang Guo is still in the custody of the kidnappers after getting injured in his escape bid. One can visualise how miserable he would be feeling all alone in the clutches of the Swati Taliban. The Polish engineer was kidnapped from Attock in Punjab but if one were to believe the claim made by the Taliban from Darra Adamkhel, he has been brought to the tribal areas and is now probably with the Baitullah Mahsud-led Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). A deal will have to be cut with Baitullah Mahsud and his TTP now to secure his release and that of the Chinese engineer and others, and this would entail releasing most wanted militants and paying ransom.
Every kidnapping of a foreigner risks affecting Pakistan's relations with the country to which the kidnapped person belongs. The Afghan government is already suspicious of Pakistan and the non-recovery of ambassador Farahi is clearly sending the wrong signals to Kabul and poisoning the uneasy ties between the two countries. The Iranian government too is anxious about the safety of its 57-year old kidnapped diplomat and has made a strong demand for his early recovery. The Chinese don't say anything in public concerning Pakistan, even if they are repeatedly being harmed in a country that is supposed to be China's old and sincere friend. And then there are the Americans, who no doubt aren't liked by most Pakistanis but are surely giving money to develop the under-developed tribal areas of Pakistan. Any American, or someone from another country living and working in Pakistan, is a guest and must be treated as such. Killing and kidnapping them is wrong and unacceptable. The Pakistani government is understandably weak, as shown by its failure to stop their killing and kidnapping or secure the safe recovery of those kidnapped. In such a situation, our people must show by their actions that they don't agree with those who bring the country to disrepute by indulging in killings and kidnapping of diplomats and other foreigners who wish us well.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai @yahoo.com
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