[Since last spring, kidnapped foreigners have included two Germans, a man and a woman, who worked for the German aid group GIZ; a female Dutch aid worker; and Ms. Wilson. There have been rumors of other kidnappings of Westerners, but embassies have not confirmed them.]
By Rod Norland
|A police checkpoint last week in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, near the Pakistan |
border. Katherine Jane Wilson, an Australian aid worker, had been
kidnapped in the city one day earlier. Credit Noorullah
Shirzada/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States Embassy issued a strongly worded warning on Thursday about kidnappings of foreigners here after an American citizen narrowly escaped an abduction attempt in downtown Kabul.
“The threat of kidnapping and hostage-taking continues to be very high,” the embassy said in a statement posted on its website. It added that the attempted kidnapping on Monday targeted several expatriates, including an American citizen, who were riding in an aid group’s vehicle. The statement gave no further details.
The attempt came four days after a well-known Australian aid worker, Katherine Jane Wilson, also known as Kerry, was kidnapped in the eastern city of Jalalabad. She had been working in Afghanistan for about 20 years, relatives and Australian government officials said.
That abduction and others have alarmed foreign residents in Afghanistan, where kidnappings seemed a relatively minor risk until a year ago.
Since last spring, kidnapped foreigners have included two Germans, a man and a woman, who worked for the German aid group GIZ; a female Dutch aid worker; and Ms. Wilson. There have been rumors of other kidnappings of Westerners, but embassies have not confirmed them.
In addition, a Canadian hostage, Colin Rutherford, was released in January after being held for five years by the Taliban.
An American freelance journalist believed to have been taken prisoner by the Haqqani network in eastern Afghanistan has been held for at least three years. As in many such cases, the hostage’s identity has been kept secret by the authorities and the news media, including The New York Times, at the request of relatives or government officials.
Two other Americans are thought to be held. Caitlin Coleman of York, Pa., disappeared with her husband, Joshua Boyle, a Canadian, while vacationing in Afghanistan in 2012. She was pregnant at the time; her child, who would now be about 4, would be an American citizen as well. Her family released videos of Ms. Coleman and her husband that had been sent to them by the Taliban.
The aid group that was targeted on Monday has not been publicly identified, but it is believed to be a major American organization.
In the case of Ms. Wilson, 60, the Australian government confirmed her identity, and her father, Brian Wilson, appealed for her release in an interview with the British newspaper The Daily Mail.
“I presume she’s a hostage, and that they’ll do their best to keep her alive and not harm her, simply because they want to have something or other in return and it’s not very good having a dead hostage,” the paper quoted Mr. Wilson as saying.
Ms. Wilson ran the Zardozi organization, which promotes the work of Afghan artisans, particularly women, and sold their handicrafts primarily to foreign residents here and abroad. The group’s items were sold in Ganjina, a popular handicraft venue in central Kabul that has shut down because of security concerns and a decline in customers.
The Afghan police believe that many of the kidnappings of foreigners have been carried out by criminal gangs motivated by ransom. The fear is that such groups could sell their hostages to extremist organizations. Several of those kidnapped, such as the German and Dutch citizens taken last year, have been released, but it is not known whether ransoms were paid.
Afghan citizens working for aid groups are frequently kidnapped while in the field, but in most cases they are released unharmed after negotiations with insurgents and community leaders. That was the case with five Afghan employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross, who were abducted in Ghazni Province in February but released unharmed after four days. Last year, however, five Afghan workers for the Save the Children charity were abducted and murdered in southern Oruzgan Province.
The kidnappings of foreigners in Kabul have been concentrated in the Taimani neighborhood, where many foreign aid workers and journalists have homes and offices. The attempt on Monday also took place in Taimani, said Fraidoon Obaidy, who leads the criminal investigation division for the Kabul police. Despite the embassy’s statement, however, he said it was apparently an attempted carjacking of the aid group’s vehicle. “There was no proof that showed it was a kidnapping attempt,” he said.
In the kidnapping of one of the German aid workers, in Taimani, the police arrested suspects, leading to her release, Mr. Obaidy said. “No ransom was paid that I might know of,” he said, “but if anything was paid to the kidnappers without telling us, that is a different issue.”
The other German worker for GIZ was taken hostage in the northern city of Kunduz, and he has also been released, officials said.
Mohammad Omar Safi, the governor in Kunduz Province at the time of the abduction, said a criminal gang had released that worker after a $1.5 million ransom was paid. The kidnappers had wanted more, Mr. Safi said, and they kidnapped the second GIZ staff member in retaliation, demanding an even larger ransom.
Mr. Safi, who was interviewed by phone from Germany, said he had no personal knowledge of whether a ransom had been paid in the second case.
A spokesman for GIZ, Oliver Hanschke, declined to say whether the agency had paid for the release of its workers. “GIZ does generally not comment on hostage-taking,” Mr. Hanschke said.
The United States Embassy’s warning on Thursday advised Americans to “avoid predictable travel patterns within Afghanistan.” The embassy also urged people to “review your personal security plans, take appropriate steps to enhance your personal safety, remain aware of your surroundings, monitor local news for updates, and maintain a high level of vigilance.”
Reporting was contributed by Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul, and Khalid Alokozay from Jalalabad.