September 23, 2008 / 8:43 AM / 9 years ago

Pakistani guards on front line of bombing campaign

<p>Video grab from security camera footage shows a guard attempting to put out a blaze in a truck before it blew up at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad September 20, 2008. The suicide bomb attack that killed 53 people at theDawn TV via Reuters TV</p>

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistani security guard Shabnam Jamshed seemed distracted when she left her Islamabad home for work last Saturday.

"She wasn't her usual self. She looked upset and told me to take care of the children," said her husband, Jamshed Akhtar.

Hours later Shabnam was dead, one of 53 people killed when a suicide truck bomber attacked Islamabad's Marriott Hotel, where she worked as a guard.

Shabnam was posted at a walk-through metal detector at the hotel entrance, checking women coming into the building, one of the city's two top hotels which was a favorite meeting place for diplomats, aid officials and well-heeled Pakistanis.

She would have been about 30 meters (yards) from the hotel's front security barriers, where her colleagues stopped the suicide bomber in his truck not long before the huge explosion.

Some time later, a phone call came.

"Her colleagues called me and said 'come in a car and get her'. I said 'what do you mean by that?'," Akhtar, her widower and father of their four children, said as he wept.

The killing of Shabnam, and all of her colleagues who stopped the bomber getting right up to the hotel, has highlighted the danger facing Pakistan's poorly paid and barely trained private security guards.

With al Qaeda and Taliban militants stepping up a bombing campaign aimed at forcing the government to abandon support for the U.S.-led campaign against Islamist militancy, the guards are the first line of defense at most places that could be targets.

"NO TRAINING"

Private guards, usually in blue uniforms and the majority of them men, can be seen outside hotels, embassies, offices and virtually every home in upmarket neighborhoods in Islamabad and other cities. Some are armed, some not.

From old soldiers with long white beards to young men fresh from the countryside, the guards are in effect an auxiliary police force in a country haunted by fears of violence.

<p>Pakistani paramilitary troops stand guard behind barbed wire as they cordon off the area near the Marriott Hotel after a suicide bomb blast in front of the hotel in Islamabad September 21, 2008.Mian Khursheed</p>

On average, they are paid about 5,000 rupees ($64) a month, working 12-hour shifts.

There are about 200 security companies in Pakistan who employ many thousands of guards, few of whom get proper training, especially for dealing with bombers, said Ikram Sehgal, who runs one of the country's biggest security companies.

"Theoretically, once they recruit somebody, they are supposed to do proper documentation, proper education of that person, and then have a proper training school," said Sehgal.

"But, frankly speaking, there are no training schools."

Babar Shehzad, a 27-year-old guard posted in Islamabad's main commercial area, said he worked in fear of disaster.

"I do feel scared, and especially after this blast, it's very difficult," Shehzad says.

The only reason he remained a guard was because he could not find other work, he said.

"It's something, better than nothing. There's serious unemployment and I have no other option but to work as a guard."

In a fiercely competitive market, with customers looking for the cheapest rates, Sehgal said there was little incentive for companies to spend money training staff.

"Most people who have security go for the lowest price. They don't look at the technical side of it, whether the company has got proper procedures," he said.

The owner of the Marriott has said he will look after the children of those killed in the attack.

Shabnam's husband Akhtar said he didn't want much.

"I don't want a big home or a big car, I just want a future for my daughters," he said.

Editing by Robert Birsel and Paul Tait

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