Page last updated at 09:30 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 10:30 UK

Afghanistan's kidnapping industry

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Kabul

Kabul bird market, file pic from 2008
Business leaders fear the spate of kidnappings may worsen

Six or seven men wearing military-style uniforms approached businessman Mohammed Easa and then pistol-whipped him.

They dragged the money trader - who was by then barely conscious - into their vehicle and sped off.

"When I woke up, I was tied up, and blindfolded," says Mr Easa, recalling his ordeal seven months ago. "They beat me and I thought any second I might die."

Mr Easa's kidnap is not an isolated incident - on average a businessman is kidnapped at least once a week in Afghanistan.

According to the Afghanistan International Chamber of Commerce (AICC), 173 businessmen have been kidnapped across the country in the last three years: a number of them have been killed.

But as the insurgency appears to spread, exacerbated by the general sense of lawlessness that accompanies any security vacuum, Afghan business leaders fear the kidnapping phenomenon could worsen.

They fear it will hasten the rate of entrepreneurs fleeing the country.

Safe - for now

Initially, Mr Easa's kidnappers demanded a $2m ransom from his family.

"I told them that we didn't have that kind of money," he says.

Every day people are leaving and setting up in Dubai and Germany
Azarakhsh Hafizi
AICC chairman

After several days of negotiation, Mr Easa's family managed to stump up $500,000 - $200,000 of their own money, and the remainder as loans from friends.

When the ransom was paid, the kidnappers dropped him off in a quiet part of the city late at night.

Mr Easa says he now feels safe in the city."I don't have any money now, so nobody will want to kidnap me," he says, by way of explanation.

But many other businessmen do not. Azarakhsh Hafizi, the chairman of the AICC, fears the kidnapping trend could increase.

Mr Hafizi also worries about the impact that these kidnappings are having on Afghanistan's economy.

He says that the Afghan government must do more to protect the lives of businessmen and their capital to stop the flight of commerce leaders from the country.

"Every day people are leaving and setting up in Dubai and Germany," he adds.

"Without investment we cannot create jobs."

Government collusion?

Many business leaders blame the kidnappings on organised crime groups operating inside Afghanistan but with strong links to criminals in Asia and even Europe.

"Sometimes they demand that we pay a ransom to them in a foreign country," says Mohammad Amin Khosty, the general manager of Shahzada market, Afghanistan's main money exchange.

Afghan market, file pic from 2004
Traders are concerned the kidnappings will affect the economy

In the last two years, more than 15 of the market's traders have been kidnapped, he says.

He says that corrupt government officials and the Afghan security services often collude in these crimes.

In the face of this threat, many businessmen have upped security and the Afghan Ministry of Interior now allows businessman to legally carry weapons.

Haji Ahmed Shah Hakimi decided to buy a Russian pistol after a botched kidnap attempt.

The weapon nestles between his car seat and the gear box as he drives round Kabul.

"If anything happens now, I can defend myself," he says, with a smile.

But Mr Hakimi says he no longer leaves Kabul, no longer drives at night, and regularly travels with his brothers, who act as informal bodyguards.

Like other businessmen, however, he knows there is one thing that money cannot buy here - and that is security.

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