Gunmen who kidnapped two young Swiss tourists in a volatile southwestern Pakistani province have reportedly taken them to a notorious Taliban-al-Qaeda tribal zone.
The Swiss couple, who were travelling across Pakistan in a camper van, were kidnapped by gunmen on Friday in the sparsely populated Balochistan region, which borders both Iran and Afghanistan.
“We have information the Swiss couple have been shifted to the tribal areas [on the Afghan border]," Balochistan’sprovincial home secretary Zafarullah Baloch told the AFP news agency on Monday.
The semi-autonomous region has been dubbed by Washington the most dangerous place on Earth and a global headquarters of al-Qaeda.
Baloch said the couple had probably been transferred to the southwestern town of Zhob, but did not specify where precisely they were likely to be now.
He said searches would continue in Balochistan and that it was still unclear whether the couple had been kidnapped by criminals or militants.
Some 500 police and paramilitary soldiers are currently searching for the Swiss couple, who are reportedly both trained police officers from canton Bern, although one is no longer an active-duty officer.
“We have interviewed leaders, tribal chiefs and police at road blocks… but in vain,” Sohail Ur Rehman, a leader from the Loralai district where they were snatched, told the French-Swiss regional 24Heures newspaper.
The Swiss couple were reportedly returning to Switzerland in their blue VW camper van after a stay in India.
They entered Pakistan’s Balochistan province on Friday afternoon driving westwards from neighbouring Punjab. When they reached Loralai, about 150 kilometres north of Quetta, the capital of the province, they were given a police escort, local Pakistan officials have said.
However, once they reached its outskirts, beyond the area under police jurisdiction, they were left without security.
Pakistani officials said the missing couple's van was later found abandoned in woodlands in the Killi Nigah area. There was no sign of any blood or struggle. No group has so far claimed responsibility for the kidnapping nor has any ransom demand been made.
The kidnapping is the first such incident involving Swiss citizens in Pakistan, and authorities in Switzerland have set up a task force combining police and intelligence services to coordinate the case. The foreign ministry said it had contacted the local authorities in Pakistan as well as the victims’ families in Switzerland.
Since 2008, Switzerland has advised against non-essential travel to Pakistan, citing risks including the threat of kidnapping.
Balochistan is a particularly dangerous region in Pakistan. It is the scene of a low-level separatist insurgency, and criminal gangs involved in the kidnapping for ransom trade are common.
“Foreigners should never travel alone in the districts of south Punjab, central Sindh, Balochistan or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa,” Pietro Tilli, a security advisor to foreign aid workers and diplomats in Pakistan, told the Zurich-based Tages-Anzeiger newspaper. “These are not safe areas as lots of criminal and militant Islamic groups train there.”
Abductions for ransom have become a lucrative business in Pakistan. Last month Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik told parliament that 15,365 incidents of kidnappings had taken place in the country in 2010.
Out of the total, 13,497 took place in Punjab, 1,293 in Sindh, 273 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 250 in Balochistan and 52 in Islamabad.
Most kidnapping victims in the country are Pakistani.
“A new phenomenon is so-called ‘Quicknappings’,” said Tilli. “Middle-class Pakistanis are kidnapped and their families have to quickly find the ransom money, which ranges from $2,000-5,000.”
But foreign aid workers, diplomats and other foreigners have also been targeted. Foreign hostages included a Chinese engineer, a Polish oil worker and an American, John Solecki, who worked for the United Nations refugee agency and was released after two months in captivity.
A French tourist was held hostage for three months in Balochistan from May to August 2009, while travelling with two other French men, a woman and two children in a camper van from Quetta to Iran.
Officials in Pakistan and Afghanistan say criminal gangs account for many ransom plots, though they are known to work with militant groups like the Pakistani Taliban.
Last month US officials declared that files recovered from Osama bin Laden's Pakistan hide-out showed al-Qaeda was also focusing more on kidnapping to raise funds as the group faced a cash shortage.
Swiss tourists are seldom victims of abductions. At greater risk are business people, Swiss living abroad and staff of international organisations; most are eventually released.
December 2010: A 50-year-old businessman is abducted in Cuernavaca in Mexico. Although a ransom of SFr10,000 is paid by his family, he has not reappeared.
June 2010: A 71-year-old businessman, who had been abducted in the south of the Philippines, is freed by soldiers.
April 2010: Eight Red Cross workers, including one Swiss, are released after being held for a week in the Congo.
January 2010: Police in Colombia free a 32-year-old Swiss woman who had been held for a fortnight.
January 2009: A couple from Zurich and two other Europeans are abducted by an al-Qaida group in Mali. They are released three and six months later respectively.
January 2009: Three Red Cross workers, including one Swiss, are held by Islamic rebels on the Philippines island of Jolo. They are all released between April and July 2009.
July 2008: Swiss businessmen Max Göldi and Rachid Ramdani are held until 2010 by the Libyan authorities following the arrest of one of Moammar Gaddafi’s sons in Geneva.
October 2007: A Swiss filmmaker abducted in Haiti is released a week later after paying a ransom.
November 2005: A Swiss couple on holiday in Yemen are abducted by armed fighters who want the release of colleagues. The Swiss are freed after the intervention of local chieftains.
August 2003: Four Swiss tourists and ten other foreign hostages are released by Islamic Salafists in Mali after half a year.end of infobox