PESHAWAR, Pakistan - A veteran U.N. official due to retire soon was shot dead along with a guard while resisting kidnappers Thursday at a northwest Pakistan refugee camp, the latest indication of the peril facing humanitarian workers aiding those uprooted by army offensives against the Taliban.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack at Kacha Garhi, a camp on the outskirts of Peshawar city, but observers said it was likely the work of a criminal gang, and not Taliban militants. Overall security has deteriorated in Pakistan as the Taliban gained strength in the past decade, and kidnappings for ransom, among other crimes, have soared.
The attack occurred around the time Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited a nearby camp as part of a trip to meet with Pakistani officials.
The slain U.N. worker was Zill-e-Usman, a Pakistani in charge of the U.N.'s relief efforts at the camp. The chief of the U.N. refugee agency in Pakistan, Guenet Guebre-Christos, said the 59-year-old Usman had worked for the U.N. for nearly 30 years and was set to retire. A U.N. statement said he left behind a wife and four children.
"He was quite an old hand, and he was looking forward to his retirement," Guebre-Christos told The Associated Press.
She strongly condemned the attack, calling it a "cowardly assassination." The U.N. said in a statement that a camp guard was also killed, while another guard and a local U.N. worker were wounded.
Islam Khan, a guard at the Kacha Garhi camp, said four men drove up to Usman's office in a blue car. Usman was coming out of his office, and the men tried to kidnap him.
Local police chief Ghayoor Afridi said Usman resisted the kidnapping attempts.
A camp guard then opened fire and a gunfight ensued, in which one of the assailants was also wounded, Khan said.
The attack is the latest to rattle aid organizations who have stepped up efforts in Pakistan, where some 2 million people have fled their homes in the past several months because of military offensives against Taliban insurgents in the northwest. Around 200,000 have ended up in relief camps. Most of the refugees are from the Swat Valley and surrounding districts.
Some 16,000 people are staying at the camp where Usman worked, according to the U.N. The refugees hail mainly from Bajur, a tribal area where the military launched an offensive nearly a year ago. Security forces continue to face pockets of resistance there.
In June, a suicide attack at the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar killed 11 people including some U.N. workers. Earlier this year, American U.N. employee John Solecki was kidnapped and held for around two months in Baluchistan province. His driver was shot dead.
Guebre-Christos said Thursday she wasn't aware of any direct threats toward U.N. workers at the camp.
"We don't know who these people are who attacked or why they did it," she said.
Mahmood Shah, a former security chief for Pakistan's northwest tribal regions, said Thursday's attack sounded like the work of criminals rather than the Taliban because the militants had largely been driven from that area.
Although many criminal gangs are believed to carry out kidnappings for their own gain, others are suspected of links to the Taliban, and kidnappings are believed to be an important source of funding for the militancy.
Foreigners are seemingly appealing targets for both militants and kidnappers.
Earlier this year, Taliban militants beheaded a Polish geologist. Last year, Lynne Tracy, the top U.S. diplomat in the northwest, narrowly survived an attack on her vehicle in Peshawar by suspected militants. In November, also in Peshawar, gunmen shot and killed American aid worker Stephen Vance.
Also on Thursday, a U.N. commission investigating the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto arrived in Pakistan for the first time since opening its inquiry. The members were meeting with senior officials.
Bhutto was killed in late 2007 as she campaigned to return her political party to power in parliamentary elections. Her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, took over the party and was elected president by lawmakers in September 2008.
Little progress has been made in the domestic probe into Bhutto's slaying. The government hopes the U.N. inquiry will help bring her killers to justice.
Ryan Lucas reported from Islamabad, and Riaz Khan from Peshawar. Associated Press writer Kathy Gannon contributed to this report from Peshawar.