British election worker seized in Afghanistan

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The Independent Online

A UN election worker holding dual British and Irish nationality is among three foreigners seized in Afghanistan today.

A UN election worker holding dual British and Irish nationality is among three foreigners seized in Afghanistan today.

The three were taken at gunpoint in the capital Kabul this morning sparking fears among fellow voluntary workers of Iraq-style atrocities.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said: "One of them is a British-Irish dual national.

"We are in touch with the family."

Mr Straw said the incident provided a "sombre context" for his speech on challenges ahead for Afghanistan.

The other two victims are reported to be from the Balkans region and the Philippines.

The three - part of a United Nations team assisting with Afghanistan's presidential elections - were abducted with their vehicle near an office of a joint UN-Afghan electoral body, said Abdul Khaleeq Samimi, a senior police official.

The UN secretary-general's spokesman in Kabul, Manoel de Almeida e Silva, said: "There was indeed a kidnapping. The victims were international staff with the electoral commission here in Kabul. There were probably three.

"The police are on the case. We are in close contact with them."

One election official said the victims were all women.

The motive for the attack was not clear, but Taliban rebels have kidnapped Westerners in the past, and the US Embassy issued a warning earlier this month that abductions might be attempted surrounding the October 9 presidential vote.

Abdul Hadi Qasemi, an Afghan working for UN security, said the three were stopped and abducted by five gunmen. He said the driver of the UN car was also missing.

UN security staff ringed the white vehicle, found on a dusty street near an office of the joint UN-Afghan electoral body.

The car, clearly marked with the world body's initials, had its doors locked and there was no sign of any struggle.

The three were driven away in a dark-coloured four-wheel-drive vehicle in the direction of Paghman, a district in the west of Kabul province that is considered rife with banditry, said Abdul Jamil, head of the city police's criminal department.

Police said officers manning checkpoints around the city and in neighbouring districts, including Paghman, were alerted to check the identity of any foreigners passing their posts.

Two Nato helicopter gunships were circling over the city. Nato armed vehicles were stationed on street corners in the city's upmarket Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, where many aid workers and diplomats live.

Afghan security forces were stopping cars and questioning the passengers.

Afghanistan remains a largely lawless country in the grip of warlord militias, despite the presence of thousands of American troops and other foreign soldiers under Nato command.

About 1,000 people have died in political violence so far this year, including more than 30 American soldiers.

A string of bombings and shootings blamed on militants killed at least a dozen election workers in the run-up to the presidential vote.

Election day passed relatively peacefully, but optimism that the militants were a fading force was dampened on Saturday when a suicide attacker armed with grenades killed an American woman and an Afghan teenager and injured three Nato soldiers in a Kabul shopping street.

Several foreign construction workers have been kidnapped along the Kabul-Kandahar highway, which is being rebuilt with mainly US funds.

One Turkish engineer was shot dead in a shoot-out between kidnappers and security guards in March. Others abducted, including Turks and Indians, were later released unharmed.

As recently as Monday, Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that the recent presidential elections in Afghanistan had dealt a "huge blow" to terrorists.

Talking about the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists around the globe, Mr Blair told his monthly press conference at Downing Street: "This can't be defeated by security alone ... The biggest blow that has been dealt these terrorists in the last few months is the Afghan elections.

"That was a country used as a training ground for terrorists, and now it will have a democratically-elected president and later a democratically-elected parliament.

"That is a huge blow to them. Same with Iraq. Every time you deal these people a blow by showing how we stand up for the values of freedom and democracy and they don't, then we deal a blow to their recruitment, to their propaganda.

"This cannot be defeated by weapons alone. It has to be defeated by showing that what we are actually trying to do is to bring greater stability, freedom, prosperity and democracy to these countries - not some imaginary war against Muslims, since the people benefiting are obviously Muslims themselves."