By MUNIR AHMAD and NAHAL TOOSI, Associated Press Writers
ISLAMABAD – Pakistani police raided a local security firm that helps protect the U.S. Embassy on Saturday, seizing dozens of allegedly unlicensed weapons at a time when unusually intense media scrutiny of America’s use of private contractors has deepened anti-U.S. sentiment here.
Two employees of the Inter-Risk company were arrested during the raids in Islamabad, police official Rana Akram told a news conference. Reporters were shown the disputed weapons — 61 assault rifles and nine pistols. Akram said police were seeking the firm’s owner.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Rick Snelsire said the U.S. contract with Inter-Risk took effect at the start of 2009. It is believed to be the first contract the firm has signed with the U.S., said Snelsire, who did not have a figure for its amount.
“Our understanding is they obtained licenses with whatever they brought into the country to meet the contractual needs,” he said. “We told the government that we had a contract with Inter-Risk, that Inter-Risk would be providing security at the embassy and our consulates.”
Akram said he had no idea about any U.S. links to Inter-Risk, but the company was recently mentioned in local media reports that have been trying to establish the types of private security firms American diplomats use in Pakistan.
In particular, Pakistani reporters, anti-U.S. bloggers and others have suggested the U.S. is using the American firm formerly known as Blackwater — a claim that chills many Pakistanis because of the company’s alleged involvement in killings of Iraqi civilians.
The U.S. Embassy denies it uses Blackwater — now known as Xe Services — in Pakistan.
Scandals involving U.S. private contractors have occurred elsewhere in the region.
In Washington on Friday, the Commission on Wartime Contracting heard testimony about another contractor — ArmorGroup North America — involving alleged illegal and immoral conduct by its guards at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan.
The Iraqi government refused to grant Xe Services an operating license earlier this year amid continued outrage over a 2007 lethal firefight involving some of its employees in Baghdad, although the State Department has temporarily extended a contract with a Xe subsidiary to protect U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
Many of the reports in Pakistan have been fueled by U.S. plans to expand its embassy space and staff. Among the other rumors the U.S. denies: that 1,000 U.S. Marines will land in the capital, and that Americans will set up a Guantanamo-style prison.
The U.S. says it needs to add hundreds more staff to allow it to disburse billions of dollars in additional aid to Pakistan.
Legislation making its way through Congress will triple nonmilitary aid to Pakistan — one version would provide $1.5 billion a year over five years in humanitarian and economic aid. The goal is to improve education and other areas, lessening the allure of extremism.
The U.S. considers stability in Pakistan critical to helping the faltering war effort in neighboring Afghanistan, and has pressed Pakistan to crack down on extremism on its soil.
Al-Qaida and Taliban fighters are believed to use Pakistan’s northwestern regions bordering Afghanistan as hide-outs. Their presence has fueled violence in Pakistani territory, including attacks that pit Sunni Muslims against Shiite Muslims.
Police said Saturday that the death toll from a suicide car bombing at a hotel in a Shiite Muslim-dominated village in Pakistan’s northwest rose to 40. The Friday blast in Usterzai village was followed by a bomb in nearby Cho village that killed a Sunni official.
Pakistan has made some gains against militants, however, especially in the northwest Swat Valley, where a four-month-old offensive appears to have cleared many Taliban insurgents.
The army said in a statement Saturday that 51 militants had surrendered in the last 24 hours, and that another seven were arrested. It also said militants fatally shot five civilians in a minibus.
Associated Press writer Lori Hinnant in Kabul contributed to this report.