Police teams in Punjab scramble to find missing child

Kidnapping has long menaced Pakistan. From the notorious Dacoits who prowl the Thar desert, to Taliban militants along the Afghan border, grabbing people for ransom sadly continues to prove a lucrative trade.

But five-year-old Sahil Saeed's mysterious disappearance after robbers stormed his grandmother's home in the central Punjabi town of Jhelum has left many startled. "It's a very unusual case," said a senior government official.

The Punjab police are scrambling to mount a response. "Three different teams are searching for the boy," said the official. In its initial findings, they have "traced some telephone numbers" linked to the suspects, "none of which are from Pakistan". One of the numbers is said to originate in Denmark.

The provincial government has also been taken aback by the apparent "professionalism" involved in the snatch. "The way they have carried out this abduction is out of the ordinary," said an aide to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif.

It is not clear whether any arrests have been made at this stage. While some reports insist that a suspect has been seized, the aide to the chief minister denies that anyone has been taken into custody.

Jhelum is a major garrison town located 100km south of Islamabad. While there is little prospect of Islamist militants being responsible, vast stretches of the largest and wealthiest province have become increasingly vulnerable to a broader breakdown in law and order.

Just a day before the news broke of Sahil's kidnapping, the Punjab police force was embroiled in controversy as a video emerged that showed its officers thrashing criminal suspects in public. Such acts have served to erode public confidence in law enforcement authorities and provide succour to those seeking to exploit the vacuum. Businessmen have been picked up for ransom near Jhelum before and many now only make the journey accompanied by private security guards. Punjab province is also troubled by family and, more broadly, clan disputes that have escalated into kidnappings and murders.

Officials are currently struggling to ascribe any motive to Sahil's disappearance. But they will have to make progress swiftly. Neither his distraught famly, nor the reputation of Pakistan itself, can afford for him to remain missing much longer.

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