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Kidnapping of Pakistani Kids Rising

April 13, 1999

KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) _ A car rolls to a stop outside a posh school for the children of Karachi’s wealthiest and a man with an automatic rifle leaps out.

Carefully, he surveys the street before letting two young boys in the back seat leave the car and enter the school grounds.

The sons of a wealthy industrialist in this violent port city, Salim and Arsalan Rehman never travel outside their heavily fortified home without their armed escort and a driver armed with a submachine gun.

``In the beginning, we felt very odd with guards following us everywhere, but now we’re used to it,″ said 13-year-old Arsalan. ``They are like family now. They play cricket with us.″

While kidnappings aren’t new to Karachi, the victims are. Before it was the wealthy adults who were kidnapped. Now it is their children.

In the last eight weeks, three teen-age boys have been kidnapped in Karachi, and the last abduction ended tragically.

The body of 17-year-old Asif Bhoja was found riddled with bullets last month after his father, the owner of a private airline, was unable, according to authorities, to pay the $1 million ransom demanded by the kidnappers.

The two other boys were released after their parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransoms.

``There has been a shift in the trend of kidnappings and young boys are now being targeted,″ said Jamil Yousuf, head of the Citizen Police Liaison Committee, a watchdog organization that monitors crime and police performance in Karachi.

Kidnapping for ransom began in 1990 in Karachi, Pakistan’s industrial and manufacturing heart, and there have been 229 reported cases of abductions since then, according to Yousuf. Nearly all targeted wealthy businessmen who paid ransoms to win their releases.

But the latest wave, aimed at the children of the wealthy _ and the slaying of Asif Bhoja _ have shattered the faith of many Karachi residents in the city’s security forces.

``With the increase in crime and kidnappings ... I don’t have any faith in the administration or the police to protect my children,″ said Begum Rehman, Salim and Arsalan’s mother.

Karachi, a city of 14 million, is a notoriously violent city wracked by ethnic rivalries. Rival factions of the Muttaheda Qami Movement, an ethnic party representing Indian Muslims who settled in Pakistan after 1947, vie for control over sections of the city. But they are not alone: Some neighborhoods are controlled by Pashtun nationalists, while in others, extremist Sindhi nationalists hold sway.

Successive governments have tried to crack down on crime in the city, leading to temporary halts in the kidnappings, but they always start up again. Late last year, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif fired the provincial government in Sindh, where Karachi is located, and launched a major crackdown to try to curb the lawlessness.

Among the measures he imposed were military courts, which, during the three months they operated, handed out several harsh sentences, including death sentences for murders committed in the course of kidnappings. Just as notable, they concluded cases within 10 days _ a record in Pakistan, where cases often take years to go through the court system.

But last month, the Supreme Court ruled the military courts were unconstitutional and they were banned.

Sharif has harshly criticized the action, blaming the courts’ closure for Asif Bhoja’s slaying in a speech at a prayer service for the teen-ager.

The government’s inability to halt the abductions is directly linked to the ineffectiveness of the courts in getting convictions in kidnapping cases, Yousuf said.

The reason, he said, is because many of the at least 72 gangs of kidnappers operating in the city have links to powerful political or ethnic groups. When suspects are arrested, he said, they are inevitably released on bail.

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