British workers held in Pakistan

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The Independent Online
PAKISTAN'S government was accused last night of holding 35 British power company employees and their families hostage in a row over electricity payments.

Police cordoned off the homes of the expatriates, employees of National Power working as operational and maintenance managers in a new power plant at Lasbela, 25 miles west of Karachi, and forbade them to leave.

No explanation was given, and by evening they were still captive. The security manager on the site, Dan Cowell, said there was enough food and water to last a few days.

In the federal capital of Islamabad, a spokesman for the British High Commission described the police action as "despicable behaviour", adding: "We are incredibly concerned." He went on: "We understand that food and fresh water is being stopped from going into the site ... We don't know why this has happened ... we are doing all we can to sort it out."

The Britons, nine of them women, appear to be victims in a prolonged assault by Nawaz Sharif's government on the country's independent power producers. Pakistan is desperately short of generating capacity, and to fill the gap the foreign companies are building 20 new power stations. Their misfortune is that they signed their contracts during the regime of Benazir Bhutto, who was sacked in 1996.

Mr Sharif is targeting the companies for two reasons: hoping to find evidence that they paid kickbacks to Ms Bhutto and her cronies, he aims to pile yet more corruption charges on the head of the woman who remains his chief political adversary; and by forcing the independent suppliers to cut their prices to the near-bankrupt national power authority, Wapda, he hopes to save himself political and economic embarrassment.

In March, Wapda raised the cost of electricity to residential consumers by more than one-third. The government then asked the power companies to cut tariffs by 25 to 30 per cent. When they did not, Nawaz Sharif persuaded the president to promulgate the Erad- ication of Corrupt Business Practices Ordinance, aimed solely at energy companies. Directors of power companies may be jailed for up to seven years if found guilty of having given bribes.

Four days later, several businessmen close to the companies were arrested, including a former director of Hubco, owner of the plant where the Britons work. Their house arrest appears to be the latest bid to bully the companies into complying.