UN hails release of kidnapped staffer in Pakistan

Posted at 04/05/09 7:42 AM

PARIS - The United Nations welcomed Saturday's release of one of its staff in Pakistan, two months after he was kidnapped, and called for the prompt release of a UN special envoy snatched in Niger.

"I'm very pleased that John Solecki ... has been released today. I'm very happy," said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon soon after the American, who headed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Quetta, was freed.

Ban expressed his "sincere appreciation" to Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, Afghan head of state Hamid Karzai and "many other people" for "working tirelessly" to secure Solecki's release.

The secretary general -- in Paris for talks with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner -- went on to call for the immediate release of his special envoy to Niger, veteran Canadian diplomat John Fowler, who went missing with his assistant Louis Guay in December 2008 in the West African nation.

"I sincerely hope that the captors, whoever they may be, should immediately, without any condition, relase him as soon as possible," Ban said.

The North African branch of Al-Qaeda has claimed the kidnappings in an audio tape broadcast by the pan-Arabic satellite broadcaster Al-Jazeera.

In Geneva, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres said the entire UN refugee agency was "extremely relieved" to learn of Solecki's release.

"I am particularly grateful to everyone who has worked so hard to secure John's release, including UN and UNHCR security staff, Baluchi leaders who have provided consistent support, and the Pakistani authorities," Guterres said.

Solecki, who headed the UNHCR office in Quetta, capital of the southwestern province of Baluchistan, was seized at gunpoint there on February 2 by a local militant group.

The UNHCR frequently expressed concern about his health during his ordeal.

Guterres said the UNHCR looked forward to continuing its humanitarian efforts in Pakistan "working on behalf of all of the people".