UNHCR staff celebrate release of John Solecki, mourn slain colleague

UNHCR staff worldwide welcome the safe release at the weekend of John Solecki, the refugee agency's head of office in Quetta, Pakistan.

Free at Last: John Solecki at work in Pakistan before his two-month abduction ordeal.   © UNHCR/M.Farman-Farmaian

GENEVA, April 6 (UNHCR) - UNHCR staff worldwide on Monday welcomed the safe return of John Solecki, the refugee agency's head of office in Quetta, Pakistan, who was released from two months of captivity over the weekend.

"It is a very happy day," High Commissioner António Guterres told hundreds of staff gathered in UNHCR's Geneva headquarters Monday morning. "We were all ecstatic the day before yesterday when the news came and when finally - I must say, it was one of the best days of my life - I could speak to him late Saturday."

Guterres said his Saturday night phone call with Solecki convinced him that he had endured his ordeal "with lots of courage and determination and that we can all be very proud of him. And I think the same can be said about his family."

Solecki was abducted and veteran UNHCR driver Syed Hashim was killed on February 2 as they drove to the office in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan. The abductors said they were from the previously unknown Baloch Liberation United Front.

Following a message from the abductors, Solecki, 49, was located Saturday night in Khadkhutcha, some 50 kilometres south of Quetta. He was flown out of Pakistan on Sunday and is now undergoing medical examination before flying to the United States to see his family.

"This would probably not have been possible without the extraordinary work, intelligence, commitment and courage of both our team in Pakistan and our team in Geneva," Guterres said to loud applause from staff lining the balconies of UNHCR's seven-storey headquarters atrium. "I hope John will be able to join us soon, and it will be a great moment for all of us."

Despite the relief over Solecki's freedom, Guterres said UNHCR staff are mourning the loss of Syed Hashim, a 17-year veteran of the agency who died during the abduction, leaving behind a wife and four children. A minute's silence was held in remembrance of Hashim.

The High Commissioner also expressed concern over the increasing dangers faced by aid workers and called for respect for the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence.

"It is important that in this moment of celebration we do not forget other colleagues in these dramatic circumstances," he said in a reference to other UN, International Committee of the Red Cross and NGO staff still being held around the world. Two international staff from the French non-governmental organization, Aide Médicale Internationale, were kidnapped in Sudan's Darfur region over the weekend.

"We need to make sure that these kinds of events do not go on multiplying in a way that is representing a major threat to the humanitarian community, narrowing our humanitarian space and a major concern for all of us."

He said it was essential that UN humanitarians always be perceived as honest brokers and independent actors, but "this is not an easy thing."