ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - -A U.N. official and a guard were shot and killed Thursday during a botched kidnapping attempt at a displacement camp in northwest Pakistan, underscoring the level of violence plaguing the country even as government leaders assert it's safe for camp dwellers to return home to the volatile Swat Valley.
The slayings occurred at the Kacha Garhi camp outside Peshawar, northwest Pakistan's largest city. Zelle Usman, a Pakistani citizen and a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees field officer assigned to the camp, was in his car getting ready to leave late Thursday morning when four gunmen approached and tried to kidnap him, said Abdul Ghafoor Afridi, a senior Peshawar police official.
When Usman and a guard resisted, an exchange of gunfire broke out. Usman, 59, was fatally shot in the chest. The guard was also killed in the crossfire, Afridi said. One of the gunmen was shot but was able to escape with the other three assailants.
A U.N. spokeswoman in Islamabad said Usman was assigned to help manage humanitarian aid at Kacha Garhi, one of many camps established to shelter Swat Valley residents forced to flee when Pakistan troops launched an all-out offensive to flush out Taliban militants from the region. Usman had worked for the U.N. for 30 years. The spokeswoman, who declined to give her name, said the U.N. heightened security for its staff in Pakistan as a result of the shooting, but she did not elaborate.
Security is lax at many Pakistani displacement camps, where visitors are rarely scrutinized and guards at the main gate are often unarmed. Afridi described the level of security at the Kacha Garhi camp as weak.
U.N. officials have had to strike a balance between helping Pakistan deal with one of its worst humanitarian crises in years and the need to ensure security for its workers in one of the world's most hostile environments. The U.N.'s contingent in Pakistan suffered a severe blow in June when a commando-style suicide bombing at a luxury hotel in Peshawar killed several of its workers.
In April, UNHCR official John Solecki, an American, was released after being held for two months by kidnappers belonging to a nationalist militant group from Pakistan's Balochistan province.
Earlier this week, the Pakistani government began returning people to their homes in Swat, saying the valley's major cities and towns had been cleared of Taliban militants. Several international aid agencies have questioned whether the Swat region is secure enough for the 2 million displaced by the fighting to return. Even as caravans of buses and trucks transported scores of residents and their belongings back to Swat this week, fighting broke out in the valley that left 13 militants and one soldier dead.
At Kacha Garhi, which has housed 10,000 people, camp guards said they were powerless to subdue the gunmen because they were never issued firearms.
An eyewitness, Muhammad Ali, said he watched as one of the gunmen grabbed Usman by the collar and dragged him toward the attackers' car. When the camp guard fired, the assailants fired back with AK-47 rifles, killing the guard and Usman, Ali said.
The gunmen then got into their car and sped past four unarmed guards stationed at the camp's main gate.
"We are helpless," said Muhammad Akram, one of the camp's guards. "It's not possible for us to stop gunmen with empty hands."