Afghan official: Gunmen abduct American, Australian in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Five gunmen wearing Afghan military uniforms have abducted an American and an Australian in Kabul, a security official said Monday. No group immediately claimed responsibility for the abduction.

The two foreigners were taken from their SUV while driving on Sunday night on a main road near the American University of Afghanistan, according to Sediq Sediqqi, spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry. They are believed to be employees of the university and were traveling between the university and their residence in the Afghan capital, he said.

Sediqqi added that initial reports say up to five armed men stopped the foreigners’ vehicle. The two abducted are both men, he said. He did not reveal any more details except to say that an investigation is underway.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a brief statement confirming the kidnapping of an American citizen but gave no further details “due to privacy concerns.”

“U.S. Embassy security officials are working closely with Afghan law enforcement and security colleagues and AUAF to assist in the investigation into the kidnapping,” it said, referring to the American University of Afghanistan.

Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade also issued a statement confirming “the apparent kidnapping of an Australian in Kabul.” No further details were released, also for privacy concerns.

“We continue to advise Australians not to travel to Afghanistan because of the extremely dangerous security situation, including the serious threat of kidnapping,” it said.

Senior staff at the university in Kabul could not immediately be reached for comment. Students were sent an email from the university’s Office of Student Affairs telling them the “campus will be closed tomorrow and until further notice.”

Kidnappings are not uncommon in Afghanistan. Three other foreigners who were kidnapped in Kabul over the past year have all been released, including an Indian woman, Judith D’Souza who was freed last month after being held for more than a month.

An Australian woman, Kerry Jane Wilson, was abducted in the eastern city of Jalalabad in April. Her whereabouts are unknown.

Sediqqi said that kidnappers in all the Kabul cases, including Monday’s, had been wearing military uniforms, establishing a pattern and hinting at some form of organized gang activity.

Most of the thousands of foreigners living and working in Kabul are largely confined to their embassies or, in the case of those working for the United Nations or other non-government organizations, to their residential compounds, with limited movement permitted.

The abductions heighten the risk for the few foreigners, including journalists, who move with relative freedom across the Afghan capital in order to do their work.

President Ashraf Ghani took office in 2014 promising jobs and peace, but has delivered neither as the war with the Taliban grinds on for its 15th year.

Residents of the capital complain that crime has risen in recent months, especially robbery and car theft. The apparent rise coincides with an economic crisis as the government has not been able to create jobs or stimulate growth.

The police, however, deny a spike in crime.

Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah told The Associated Press that kidnapping and other crimes have increased in Kabul and other cities in recent years. The deterioration in security coincided with the withdrawal of most international combat troops in 2014 that ended a flow that had pumped tens of billions of dollars into the country since the U.S. invasion of 2001.

“Hundreds of thousands of people were employed, directly or indirectly, that’s not there on the same scale as in the past and that has affected the economy” and led to an increase in urban crime, he said.

President Barack Obama’s decision to maintain troop levels at 8,400, and delay a drawdown to 5,500, would boost confidence among business people and investors, he said.

On Sunday, a court in the western city of Herat sentenced 14 people to death for kidnapping and murder. Another three, including a woman, were handed prison sentences of between six and 20 years.

The Pentagon said that two U.S. soldiers suffered minor injuries when their vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device near the southern city of Jalalabad in the early evening on Monday.

The soldiers were conducting a security patrol when their vehicle was struck.