Mystery of the missing father of kidnapped boy

A simple abduction case has been enveloped by a web of intrigue.
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The Independent Online

At first it seemed like a simple case of abduction: a five-year-old British boy snatched by masked gunmen in Pakistan on the last day of a two-week holiday with his father.

A £100,000 ransom demand for his safe return had been issued and, as the boy's father and police frantically searched the Punjab, a distraught mother made a desperate appeal from her home in Oldham to be reunited with her child.

But since Sahil Saeed was bundled from his grandmother's house in the Pakistani city of Jhelum on 4 March, the story has become more complicated by the day.

First there were reports that the five-year-old had been found safe and well in Sialkot, a bustling city at the foot of the Himalayas some 50 miles east of Jhelum. But they were false. A kidnapped boy had indeed been found, but it was not Sahil.

Then there was the equally mysterious whereabouts of Sahil's father, Raja Naqqash Saeed.

Rumours had been circulating that the Pakistani national had returned to the UK, against the wishes of the Punjab police who wanted him to remain in the country. Last night Pakistani and British officials confirmed that Mr Saeed had returned to Britain. Foreign Office officials in the UK said he boarded a flight to Manchester on Tuesday night.

For most of yesterday Pakistani officials, including the High Commissioner in London, Wajid Shamsul Hassan, insisted that Mr Saeed was still in the Punjab in "protective custody". But last night they finally confirmed he had taken a flight back to Britain. It is believed he did not inform police of his intention to fly to the UK.

"He went via PIA [Pakistan International Airways]," Mr Hassan told The Independent last night. "How could a father leave his child like that when he's still missing?"

Sahil's relatives in Oldham, meanwhile, a large close-knit family who have kept a vigil around the boy's inconsolable mother Akila for more than a week, say they have not heard from Mr Saeed in days.

Mr Saeed's return is another mysterious footnote to a case in which discrepancies have been exposed every day. Many local observers said it was odd that within a conservative Pakistani family a five-year-old child would travel abroad without his mother. It was also bizarre, they added, that the mother had remained in Britain throughout the ordeal. And if the father really had decided to leave Pakistan while his son remained missing, that would be even stranger.

Hard facts are difficult to come by, so what do we know?

What is not disputed is that in the early hours of 4 March, Sahil Saeed went missing. The kidnappers are said to have arrived late at night, just moments before Mr Saeed and his son were to head to Islamabad airport and return to Britain. Sahil had told his mother that he wanted jacket potatoes when he got home because he was bored of chapattis.

But he never made it home. Instead the gates of the Jhelum compound were opened to allow an awaited taxi to drive in. Accompanying the vehicle was a gang armed with guns and grenades.

Mr Saeed said that he was then "tortured" for several hours before the kidnappers snatched the child and demanded £100,000 in ransom.

The motives of the kidnappers are as unclear as Sahil's whereabouts. One theory is that the family was targeted because of their connections to Britain, where even the poorest families are largely considered to be rich by Pakistani standards.

The home where Sahil was snatched from lies on a narrow and winding street that boasts many second homes for British-Pakistani families. In recent years loud and gaudy designs, complete with Greek columns, gilt-edged roofs and shimmering mirror tiles have sprung up across Jhelum. Scenting foreign wealth, local rackateers and gangsters may have been tipped off.

But a queue of senior Pakistani ministers and diplomats have also put forward the theory that members of the broader family may have been involved. The taxi driver who came to collect the pair and a man police describe as "a close family member" are the only two that continue to be under arrest.

"When this incident first happened my initial reaction was that it was likely to be some sort of inside job," Mr Shamsul Hasan said yesterday. "It's possible that there has been some sort of property dispute between a member of the family in Jhelum and the father."

There were also suggestions that Mr Saeed had fallen out with his wife, taking Sahil and his mother's passport to Pakistan. The family – including Mr Saeed – have denied those claims. When The Independent interviewed Mr Saeed last week he bristled at suggestions that the kidnappings came on the heels of a rift within his marriage. "My family, my wife, everyone is with me," he said. "I am getting too much support from my in-laws."

The search for Sahil, meanwhile, continues to frustrate. Depressingly, financial kidnappings are not uncommon in parts of Pakistan although it is rare for a foreign born child like Sahil to be targeted.