PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) - Gunmen abducted an Iranian diplomat in Peshawar on Thursday, a day after a U.S. aid worker was shot dead in the city on the front line of an Islamist insurgency sweeping northwest Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan.
Suspicion for the kidnapping will inevitably fall on the Taliban and affiliated Sunni Muslim militant groups such as al Qaeda, who hate Shi’ite Muslims and predominantly Shi’ite Iran almost as much as they hate the West.
Criminal gangs using religion as a cover are also active in the area.
Spiraling violence has raised fears that nuclear-armed Pakistan could slide into chaos unless the 7-month-old civilian government, also faced with a potentially crippling economic crisis, and the army can throttle the militant threat.
Pakistan’s support is seen as vital to the West’s efforts to defeat al Qaeda globally and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry confirmed that its Peshawar consulate’s commercial attache Heshmatollah Attarzadeh Niyaki had been kidnapped. A policeman assigned to guard him was shot and killed trying to resist the assailants, police said.
“On hearing gun shots, I rushed out of my home and saw the body of the guard lying there,” Abid Hussain, a neighbor of the diplomat, told Reuters.
“By that time Attarzadeh had been taken away.”
The Iranian diplomat was on his way to the consulate from his home when his car was ambushed in Hayatabad, a neighborhood bordering the Khyber tribal region.
U.S. aid worker Steve Vance and his driver were killed outside the home where Vance lived with his wife and five children in Peshawar on Wednesday.
In late August, three members of the U.S. consulate in Peshawar escaped unhurt after gunmen ambushed their vehicle.
Peshawar is the last city on the road to the Khyber Pass, the main land route to Afghanistan. Militants seized 13 trucks laden with supplies for Western forces on the road on Monday.
U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood said in Washington late on Wednesday that the consulate in Peshawar had put out a notification urging employees and other Americans in the area to stay at home or in their offices until further notice.
Afghanistan’s ambassador-designate was kidnapped in Hayatabad on September 22, and there has been a rash of other kidnappings in recent weeks, including a Polish engineer snatched in the nearby city of Attock last month.
Iran’s state radio quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi condemning the kidnapping as “a terrorist act,” while Iran’s Student News Agency (ISNA) reported the ministry had summoned Pakistan’s envoy in Tehran to protest the inadequate protection provided for its diplomat.
Peshawar became a den of spies and jihadis in the 1980s when the United States and Saudi Arabia covertly funded a mujahideen guerrilla war to expel the Soviet army from Afghanistan.
To this day, Pakistani officials, usually privately, voice suspicions that neighboring countries are stirring trouble in the tribal lands as they compete for influence in Afghanistan.
Pakistan also has a history of sectarian violence between militants from the majority Sunni and minority Shi’ite sects.
Thousands of people have been killed since the 1980s. Earlier this year, almost 200 people were killed in sectarian clashes that erupted in the Kurram tribal region.
A scare gripped Peshawar earlier this year after supposed Taliban fighters were spotted driving into the city in daylight to intimidate video shop owners and barbers, targeted because of the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Islam.
Security forces subsequently launched punitive operations in adjoining tribal areas targeting gangs said to have been using Islamist zeal to mask their criminal activities.
Militants have retaliated against a military offensive in the Bajaur tribal region, while a series of U.S. missile strikes in the Waziristan tribal region have added to tensions.
Two suicide attacks earlier this week in Peshawar and a nearby town underlined the mounting sense of insecurity.
The World Food Programme said in a statement that the worsening security situation and banditry were hampering relief efforts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Additional reporting by Zeeshan Haider and Alamgir Bitani; Writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Paul Tait and Valerie Lee