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Pakistani U.N. official, guard killed in camp

Gunfire erupted as four men tried to kidnap Zelle Usman, an official with the U.N. refugee agency. The attack highlights the violence that persists as Swat Valley residents begin to go home.

July 17, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — A U.N. official and a guard were shot and killed Thursday during an attempted kidnapping at a displacement camp in northwestern Pakistan, underscoring the level of violence plaguing the country even as government leaders say it's safe for camp dwellers to return to the volatile Swat Valley.

The slayings occurred at the Kacha Garhi camp outside Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan's largest city. Zelle Usman, a Pakistani field officer with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who was assigned to the camp, was in his car getting ready to leave late Thursday morning when four gunmen approached and tried to kidnap him, said Abdul Ghafoor Afridi, a senior Peshawar police official.

When Usman and a guard resisted, gunfire was exchanged. Usman was fatally shot in the chest and the guard was also killed, Afridi said. One of the gunmen was shot but was able to escape with the other assailants.

A United Nations spokeswoman in Islamabad said Usman, 59, was assigned to help manage humanitarian aid at Kacha Garhi, one of many camps established to shelter Swat Valley residents who fled their homes after Pakistani troops launched an all-out offensive in April to drive Taliban militants from the region.

Usman had worked for the U.N. for 30 years. The spokeswoman, who declined to give her name, said the agency heightened security for its staff in Pakistan after the shooting, but she did not elaborate.

Security is lax at many Pakistani displacement camps, where visitors are rarely screened and guards at the main gate are often unarmed. Afridi described the level of security at the Kacha Garhi camp as low.

U.N. officials have had to strike a balance between helping Pakistan deal with one of its worst humanitarian crises in years and ensuring security for its workers in one of the world's most hostile environments. The U.N.'s contingent in Pakistan suffered a severe blow in June when a commando-style suicide bombing at a luxury hotel in Peshawar killed several of its workers.

In April, UNHCR official John Solecki, an American, was released after being held two months by kidnappers belonging to a nationalist militant group from Pakistan's Baluchistan province.

This week, the government began returning people to their homes in Swat, saying the valley's major cities and towns had been cleared of militants. Several international aid agencies have questioned whether Swat is secure enough for the 2 million displaced to return. Even as caravans of buses and trucks brought scores of people and their belongings back, fighting in Swat left 13 militants and a soldier dead.

At Kacha Garhi, which has housed 10,000 people, camp guards said they were powerless to subdue the gunmen because they were never issued firearms. A witness, Muhammad Ali, said he watched as one of the assailants grabbed Usman by the collar and dragged him toward the getaway car. When the camp guard fired, the assailants fired back with AK-47 rifles, killing the guard and Usman, Ali said.

The gunmen then got into their car and sped past four unarmed guards at the camp's main gate.

"We are helpless," said Muhammad Akram, one of the camp's guards. "It's not possible for us to stop gunmen with empty hands."

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alex.rodriguez@latimes.com

Special correspondent Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.

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