No man's land
Two Czech women disappear in Pakistan's lawless tribal region; one of several militant groups is the likely culprit
Posted: March 20, 2013
A Pakistani man rides his donkey cart as another follows on a bicycle on a road in Pishin, about 50 kilometers north of Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. The region, which borders Taliban-controlled areas to the northeast, war-ravaged Afghanistan to the northwest and Iran to the southwest, is rife with insurgency and sectarian violence.
By Daud Khattak
For the Post
The kidnapping of 24-year-olds Hana Humpálová and her friend Antonie Chrástecká March 13 in a volatile part of Pakistan was stunning - not because of the rarity of such incidents in the Balochistan province but because of the presence of two unaccompanied young Czech women in a region where kidnappings and killings by militants, separatist groups, criminal gangs, mafias and a host of other armed outfits have become routine.
There has been no claim of responsibility so far and no response to the tearful appeal by the Czech employer of one of the two tourists, or to appeals made by the Czech president or the Foreign Affairs Ministry. The latest updated information was provided March 15 by the interior secretary of the Balochistan province, Akbar Hussain Durrani, who said the "search operation is still under way, and we will recover both of them very soon."
While Durrani's message provided some hope, at least for the families of the abducted girls and the Czech authorities, the track record of high-profile abductions in Balochistan and the adjacent tribal areas paints a gloomier picture.
Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) reveals at least 664 people were abducted between Jan. 1, 2010, and April 8, 2012, in Balochistan. Prominent among those was the January 2009 kidnapping of an American citizen, John Solecki, regional head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, who was safely released after months of back-channel efforts.
Kidnapped in July 2011, a Swiss couple - Olivier David Och and Daniela Widmer - dramatically "escaped" Taliban captivity in Waziristan in March 2012. (Taliban commanders said a ransom was paid in exchange for the release of the man and woman.)
Finally, there was the tragic kidnapping of British doctor Khalil Ahmad Dale of the International Committee of the Red Cross in January 2012, whose body was found in April the same year.
Constituting approximately 44 percent of Pakistan's total land mass and sharing a border with the Taliban-controlled tribal areas to the northeast, war-ravaged Afghanistan to the northwest and Iran to the southwest, Balochistan is in a complex security situation.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), there are around 70 criminal gangs in the province. Their activities range from robberies to car snatching, drug smuggling and kidnappings for ransom.
Furthermore, Baloch nationalists are fighting a guerilla war against Pakistan state authorities. Apart from targeting Pakistani security personnel and state officers, they are one of the strongest groups believed to be involved in kidnapping for ransom. It is believed Solecki's kidnapping was the handiwork of Baloch nationalists.
Similarly, religious and sectarian outfits have strong footings in Balochistan. Among them, the sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the notorious Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are the most prominent.
Of the two, LeJ has claimed responsibility for some of the worst terrorist attacks in recent months in the province. These attacks claimed hundreds of lives, mostly among the Shia Muslim community, who are a minority in mostly Sunni Pakistan.
The TTP, on the other hand, has strong bases in the neighboring tribal areas also known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and often referred to as Pakistan's Wild West.
When the Swiss couple was kidnapped while traveling in Balochistan, they were transported to the South Waziristan tribal district, a strong base for the TTP. The neighboring North Waziristan tribal district is a stronghold of al-Qaida and the Afghanistan-focused Haqqani Terrorist Network.
All three groups are anti-American and regularly send fighters to Afghanistan. The TTP and al-Qaida also oppose the Pakistani government, as well as harboring enmity toward the Afghan government and foreign forces there. The Haqqani Network, however, is not involved in the conflict with the Pakistani government.
Initially, the TTP claimed it would exchange the Swiss hostages for the release of a Pakistani woman, scientist Aafia Siddiqi, from a U.S. prison, where she is currently serving an 86-year sentence for attempted murder and suicide - charges she continues to deny. When U.S. authorities refused to cooperate, the TTP instead demanded ransom money. A report in Pakistani media later revealed that a sum of 1 billion Pakistani rupees, or around $10 million, was allegedly paid to the Taliban to ensure the Swiss couple's safe release.
Aside from the presence of these groups, broadly known as the Afghan Taliban, the region is home to international terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Iran-focused Jandullah, which have secret operational centers and sleeper cells in parts of the Balochistan province. Meanwhile, Baloch nationalist political parties and international human rights organizations are pointing fingers at Pakistani intelligence agencies, which allegedly organize abductions of those who demand greater autonomy and independence from Pakistan. Pakistani authorities have refuted these allegations.
Among the mélange of armed groups, the perpetrators of the Czech tourists' abduction are difficult to pinpoint. The sole eyewitness account as of press time came from bus driver Manoo Khan, who was interviewed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Pashto-language Service, Radio Mashaal, March 15.
"Five of the armed kidnappers were in military uniforms and two were wearing traditional plainclothes when they stopped my bus, snatched the AK-47 from the guard traveling with the bus passengers, and ordered the Czech girls to disembark," said Khan, who added that one of the kidnappers was holding a wireless set and speaking to someone from time to time. The guard was also taken away with the two girls but was later freed.
Pakistani authorities' first suspicion lay with the Baloch nationalists, but the past few years show they had never abducted or targeted a woman. In addition, the group is known for targeting Pakistani security officials, which makes the guard's release uncharacteristic.
The use of military uniforms is a hallmark of the LeJ. In recent months, LeJ activists were reported to have been wearing military uniforms while stopping passenger buses carrying members of the rival Shia sect, forcing them to disembark and aiming their firearms at them at point-blank range.
If the LeJ or TTP is indeed involved, there will be a claim of responsibility and possibly a video with their demands for the prisoners' release in Pakistan, Afghanistan or the United States. The group's ultimate aim is to get ransom money after reaching a deal through secret channels. However, no such claim had been made public as of press time March 19, even as Pakistani officials in the area remain optimistic that the two women will be safely recovered as soon as their operation gets under way. The area has been cordoned off, thus closing all known exit routes for the kidnappers.
Several journalists in Pakistan, contacted via telephone, have named the intelligence agencies as the culprits. The ground for these speculations is that intelligence officials may have suspected the two young women of working for foreign governments. In such a case, the women should be freed sooner than later. However, if their captors are members of the TTP, LeJ or another militant group, it might take weeks - if not months.
- Daud Khattak is senior editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Pashto-language service, Radio Mashaal. He has worked both in Afghanistan and Pakistan and covered the Taliban and the tribal areas of Pakistan. He can be reached at KhanD@rferl.org