Image: Pakistani police officers
Emilio Morenatti  /  AP
Pakistani police officers hold their weapons as they stand guard at the site where U.S. citizen Stephen Vance was killed in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Wednesday.
updated 11/13/2008 9:44:28 PM ET 2008-11-14T02:44:28

Armed men kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Pakistan's northwest, a day after the slaying of an American aid worker — heightening fears that Islamic militants are hunting down foreigners.

The Iranian and his Pakistani bodyguard were driving over a narrow bridge in Peshawar when two gunmen blocked their way Thursday with a car and opened fire, said Banaras Khan, a police investigator who cited a witness. The attackers fled with the diplomat, and the guard was killed.

On Wednesday, gunmen shot and killed American aid worker Stephen Vance as he was traveling to work in Peshawar, a vital city for both the government and aid agencies where security has dramatically crumbled.

In the 1980s, Peshawar was an intrigue-filled hub for U.S.-backed guerrillas fighting Soviet troops in neighboring Afghanistan, some of whom went on to form the Taliban or al-Qaida. Osama bin Laden, now perhaps hiding in the adjacent tribal regions, was among them.

Organized crime, militancy on rise
Despite that legacy, the city of some 2 million people has been considered relatively safe for foreigners. But residents say organized crime and militancy are on the rise — and increasingly hard to distinguish — and it was possible that the Iranian was kidnapped for ransom.

Growing pockets of the nearby tribal belt have become strongholds for various extremist groups, some of whom are accused of attacking U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan as well as government forces across Pakistan.

The barely governed tribal regions have been the target of a bloody three-month Pakistani army offensive and of U.S. missile attacks from unmanned drones.

Neither the attacks nor the limited aid efforts for the impoverished tribal areas appear to be stemming the violence, which has included suicide attacks as well as shootings and abductions, many of them in and around Peshawar.

Officials identified the diplomat as Heshmatollah Atharzadeh, a commercial attache. Iran's Foreign Ministry denounced the abduction as a "terrorist act" and summoned Pakistan's envoy to Tehran.

No immediate claim of responsibility
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Pakistani militants have taken responsibility for some of the recent attacks on foreigners in the region.

Vance worked on a U.S.-funded program to pump $750 million over five years into generating jobs and building infrastructure such as wells and clinics in tribal areas. The program seeks to alleviate extreme poverty in the tribal regions where Islamic extremism has flourished.

Detective Mohammed Farooq Khan said police have found no witnesses and have no strong leads. Local police said they were mounting extra patrols in the upscale University Town district where Vance died and where many of the city's small expatriate community live and work.

The U.S. Embassy in the capital Islamabad said USAID, the American government's development arm, had told Americans in Peshawar to review their security arrangements. In Washington, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said a number of organizations planned to shift operations to Islamabad.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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