Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

PAKISTAN: Two Journalists Kidnapped on Restive Border

Ashfaq Yusufzai

PESHAWAR, Jul 5 2008 (IPS) - The abduction Friday of two Pakistani journalists representing the New York Times (NYT) in troubled Mohmand Agency by pro-Taliban fighters has put the spotlight on a spate of kidnappings for ransom that has swept the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) bordering Afghanistan.

The two, journalist Pir Zubair Shah and photojournalist Akhtar Soomro, were on assignment when they were abducted by the Taliban from Ziarat Marble in Lakaro tehsil, some 40 kms northwest of Ghallanai, the headquarters of Mohmand Agency, Assistant Political Agent Syed Ahmad Jan told IPS.

“They did not seek permission from the local authorities about their visit to the tribal region though under the law they should have informed political administration,” he said.

Shah, a resident of Tank district in the adjoining North West Frontier Province (NWFP), has been contributing to the NYT for a month. A graduate of the premier Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, he turned to journalism after the U.S. launched its so-called ‘war on terror’ against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal region.

Soomro, a photojournalist, has worked for the influential U.S.-based daily for the past few years. He is from Sindh province and was allegedly detained and tortured in restive Balochistan province two years ago.

Journalists from outside FATA are required to seek prior permission of the authorities before entering the region, which neither Shah nor Soomro had done.

Taliban local spokesman Dr Mohammad Asad told IPS by telephone that the journalists had been arrested while they were shooting a video. He said the two were being interrogated. “If they are found clean, they would be freed,” he said. “Initially they stated that they are journalists, but later they changed their statements and introduced themselves as politicians,” he said.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) in a faxed message to the Taliban on Friday evening requested them to set the reporters free.

“They (the reporters) had no hidden agenda against any one and had been there in connection with their professional responsibilities,” said the one-page appeal that was dispatched through a political administration-backed tribal jirga.

The FATA is considered the most dangerous for journalists since the government launched military operations against pro-Taliban fighters.

Six local journalists were killed since early 2005 while many others have left the area because of threats to their lives, and their relatives have been targeted.

“About 10 doctors were kidnapped during the past one month. Some of them have secured freedom by paying ransom to the Taliban or their captors,” said Nazir Khan, an office-bearer of the Tribal Union of Journalists. So also businessmen, who were kidnapped and released after paying money, he added.

Late evening on Jun. 21, armed men barged into a house in an upmarket part of Peshawar, the capital of NWFP, and whisked away 17 people by truck to the adjacent Khyber Agency of FATA. The men, all minority Christians, were freed the next day.

The attackers claimed to be militant supporters of Mangal Bagh, chief of the Lashkar-i-Islami (Islamic army) who has been spearheading an armed struggle against what he says is “spreading obscenity and un-Islamic practices” in the area. Opposed to the Taliban, he wants to impose his own brand of Islam and is campaigning against gambling, women’s education, alcohol and prostitution.

The incident created panic in Barasabad, Peshawar, home to some 500 Christian families. The attackers threatened to return “if the Christian population does not mend its ways,” according to Salamat Masih, who had organised a party in his home to celebrate the birth of his grand daughter.

However, Mangal Bagh has disassociated himself from the abduction. The Christians were taken away without his approval he told IPS. Those responsible for the incident would be taken to task, he said and issued an apology.

“Hundreds of Hindu and Sikh families have been residing in the Khyber Agency for long and were never stopped from observing their religious rites by us,” he asserted.

Kidnapping for ransom has become an industry in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. Relief agencies and individuals have been regularly targeted by militia in Pakistan in neighbouring Afghanistan as an easy source of money for their activities.

On Apr. 24, unidentified men abducted prominent resident Dr Noorul Wahab, and his driver, from the Matani area in Peshawar.

“I was kept in South Waziristan by Taliban and released when my family paid 5 million rupees to them,” he told IPS. South Waziristan is in FATA.

A political officer and a pro-government elder of the Mohmand Agency were kidnapped on Mar. 13 and were released after three days on paying the ransom demand.

“Those Taliban say they were doing this to raise money. Raising money for Jihad isn’t a sin,” Taliban spokesman, Maulvi Omar, told Ajmeer Khan, a local journalist in Mohmand tribal agency.

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