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American U.N. worker freed in Pakistan

/ Source: The Associated Press

An American U.N. worker abducted more than two months ago turned up unharmed Saturday, lying alongside a road in western Pakistan with his hands and feet bound and pleading "Help me, help me," the man who found him said.

John Solecki was discovered Saturday evening abandoned in a village some 30 miles south of Quetta near the Afghan border after his captors called a news agency to tell them where to look, officials said.

Mohammed Anwar, the owner of a restaurant alongside the main Quetta-Karachi highway, told The Associated Press that he found a bound Solecki lying in the dirt near a wall. Anwar said he heard a voice in the gloom saying, "Help me, help me," in English.

Solecki made no public comment. Police and U.N. officials declined to discuss what led to his release. U.N. officials who met with him Saturday reported that he was "tired but all right," U.N. spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said.

Solecki, who headed the U.N. refugee agency's operations in Quetta, would be reunited with his family "as soon as possible," Pagonis said, declining to say when he would leave Pakistan or whether he planned to return.

Intensifying violence
Solecki's release was a rare piece of good news amid intensifying violence here that has raised international alarm over the nuclear-armed country's stability. On Saturday, a suicide bomber attacked a paramilitary base in the capital, killing eight.

Solecki's abduction and the killing of his driver on Feb. 2 in Quetta raised concern that he was another victim in a spate of attacks on foreigners blamed on Islamist militants operating from strongholds along the Afghan frontier.

A previously unknown group, the Baluchistan Liberation United Front, had claimed responsibility for the abduction, threatening to behead him and issuing a grainy video of a blindfolded Solecki pleading for help.

But the group's name and demands indicated they were ethnic Baluch separatists who have been waging a long low-level insurgency in the impoverished but oil-rich southwest of Pakistan and have no record of taking or killing Western hostages.

The kidnappers had demanded the release of hundreds of people from alleged detention by Pakistani security agencies.

President Asif Ali Zardari last week announced that the government had "traced" 200 people previously listed as missing and provincial leaders insist they are no longer holding any political prisoners.

U.N. official missing in Niger
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was grateful for the efforts to secure Solecki's release, citing Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. But Ban, who was in Paris, also noted that another U.N. official, Robert Fowler, was still missing in Niger.

"I sincerely hope that the captors, whoever they may be, should immediately, without any conditions, release him," he said.

Kidnappers in December took Fowler, a Canadian diplomat who serves as Ban's special envoy for Niger, a Fowler aide and their driver. The driver was released unharmed almost two weeks ago in Mali's capital, Bamako.

The suicide bomber who attacked the base Saturday in Islamabad sneaked in after dark from a wooded area at the rear and detonated his explosives inside one of several large tents used as sleeping quarters.

Another four members of the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary, many of whose members are assigned to guard foreign embassies and VIPs in the city, were wounded, senior police official Bin Yamin said.

The blast was the second in Islamabad in two weeks and follows a militant assault on a police academy in the eastern city of Lahore that showed the dangerous spread of extremist violence across this Muslim nation of some 170 million people.

There was no claim of responsibility for Saturday's attack on the police base. However, the leader of a Taliban faction accused of ties to al-Qaida warned Wednesday that militants would strike soon in Islamabad.

More U.S. action in Pakistan?
U.S. special representative Richard Holbrooke is due in Islamabad this week to discuss Washington's offer of more assistance — and call for more resolute action against militants on Pakistani territory — under a plan to turn around its stalemated Afghan war effort.

However, U.S. officials have already made clear that they will take action on their own in an area that President Barack Obama last month described as the "the most dangerous place in the world" and almost certainly the hiding place of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.

On Saturday, a suspected U.S. missile strike on an alleged militant hide-out in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region left 13 people dead, Pakistani intelligence officials said.

The dead and injured in Data Khel village included local and foreign militants, but women and children were also killed, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Unmanned aircraft operated by the CIA are believed to have carried out more than three dozen such attacks in Pakistan's un-policed tribal belt over the past year.

Pakistan says the strikes violate the country's sovereignty, kill innocent civilians and generate sympathy for the militants. But the U.S. argues that the attacks are an effective tool that has killed a string of militant leaders.