Pakistan Sees Rise in Kidnappings

The three gunmen forced the car carrying the Hindu filmmaker to stop along the bumpy street, then injected him and his driver with a sedative.

The driver woke up a few hours later. The filmmaker was gone.

Six months later, in April, Satish Anand was recovered in Bannu in northwest Pakistan, according to an official involved in negotiating for his release. He is one of the most prominent Pakistanis yet to be abducted, and militants are suspected.

The rise in kidnappings comes as a foundering economy leads more people to commit crimes in this Muslim-majority country of 170 million people. It's also a result of the overall erosion of security as Pakistan faces spreading Islamist militancy. Criminals are suspected in most kidnappings, but the Taliban and other militant groups are thought to earn a slice of the money — possibly millions of dollars, officials say.

Police say militants and criminals are hard to separate, making it difficult to trace the money obtained through ransoms. Some criminals call themselves Taliban to inject more fear into negotiations, while others work in cahoots with militant groups.

"There's a nexus between these miscreants, these militants, and the criminals," said Malik Naveed Khan, top police official for the North West Frontier Province. "The police do not have enough resources to fight militancy and crime at the same time."

Although there have been some high-profile kidnappings of foreigners, including the eventually recovered American U.N. employee John Solecki, most abductions target Pakistanis.

The kidnapping wave is especially acute in Peshawar and Karachi, two major cities that have long been magnets for militants.

Peshawar is the main town in Pakistan's northwest, a region along the Afghan border that is most troubled by the insurgency. Businessmen and entertainers are favorite targets.

The number of kidnapping for ransom cases registered in the North West Frontier Province has risen from 57 in 2006 to 147 in 2008, police said. So far this year, 71 such cases have been recorded in the region of more than 20 million residents.

Last year, a 27-year-old male model from Peshawar decided things had gotten so tense that he started to carry a pistol to protect himself. It came in handy months later, when three men grabbed him and shoved him into a car.

"I was just like, 'What's happening?"' he recounted to The Associated Press, his eyes welling with tears. "At first, I was just blank. Then I realized I had my gun. I pulled it out, put it at the back of the driver's head and threatened to blow a hole in it."

The men quickly pushed him out of the car. He asked that the AP not publish his name due to security fears, and has since left the frontier city.

The southern port city of Karachi is also a prime hunting ground for kidnapping rings because it is home to many of the business elite. It is Pakistan's most populous city, with more than 16 million people.

The Citizens Police Liaison Committee, a well-established and largely volunteer-run organization that works with police to retrieve abductees, said the number of kidnappings for ransom in 2008 in the city was 92, up from 64 the previous year. In 2006, the figure was just 28.

In any case, official statistics are probably an undercount. Many families don't file complaints due to threats by the kidnappers. Sharfuddin Memon, the head of the committee, gave the account of the kidnapping of the filmmaker, Anand, who is not speaking to the media.

An intelligence memo obtained by the AP warned of a growing Taliban presence in Karachi. It said many militants use the hub as a primary base for fundraising through illegal activities, including kidnapping for ransom.

The sums demanded can run into the millions of dollars, though the captors often settle for less. In one recent case, a kidnapping ring was demanding $2.5 million. The victim was recovered by security forces, and said he'd been kept in chains that turned so hot in the sun they burned his skin.

In April, a 21-year-old Karachi man belonging to a family involved in henna manufacturing was snatched.

He was at a factory when four armed men showed up, demanded him by name and whisked him away. Then they called his family and threatened to kill him unless relatives paid a sum they couldn't afford.

Days later, his father was still in shock.

"I am trying to stay strong. He is my only son!" the 51-year-old patriarch told AP. He asked that his son's and family's name be kept confidential to avoid harming ongoing negotiations for his release.

While well-armed, organized gangs are often behind the long-term abductions, "short-term" kidnappings also are up, said Zubair Motiwala, a former president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce and Industry. In such kidnappings, the abductors typically grab someone and drive them around in a vehicle for a few hours while negotiating with relatives. Motiwala said he knows at least eight people taken captive in the past four years.

Such kidnappings are probably fueled by an economy in such bad shape that it recently received a $7.6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The economy has recently shown some signs of stabilizing.

But it's a vicious cycle. The security situation puts off would-be foreign investors, adding to the economic struggles that are fueling crime in the first place.

It doesn't help that Pakistan's government institutions, especially the under-equipped, undermanned and corruption-riddled police, are already weak. The growing militant movements target security forces and further chip away at people's confidence in the government's ability to protect them.

Many Pakistanis have begun to arm themselves for security. Others have turned to bodyguards and upgraded protection around their homes. Many try to keep a low profile and restrict their movements, even varying the routes they take.

The militants who grabbed the 21-year-old Karachi man in April have repeatedly threatened to kill him if the family doesn't pay up, but have also extended their deadlines. The victim's father was desperate for the militants to come to terms.

"I request that they have mercy in the name of God," he said.