Korean trade official abducted in Libya

SOUTH KOREA- A South Korean official at a state-run trade agency was kidnapped in Libya by unidentified armed men, and his whereabouts remains unknown, the Foreign Ministry confirmed Monday.

Han Seok-woo, head of the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency's Libya unit, was abducted by four gunmen while on his way home from his office in Tripoli at around 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, ministry officials said. The assailants headed west, leaving behind Han's car and Iraqi driver, who reported the incident to the Korean Embassy there.

"We learned that the suspects got ahead of the abductee's vehicle, forced it to stop and threatened them with weapons before kidnapping him," a senior ministry official told reporters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

No group or individual has claimed responsibility yet. Seoul officials said they believe the attack was premeditated.

Known for his expertise in Arabic language and trade affairs in the Middle East, 39-year-old Han began his second stint in Tripoli in July 2012. He is the only Korean staffer at the regional KOTRA office and works with six other locally hired employees, while his family stays in Malta for safety reasons.

There have been about 10 robberies and other criminal cases involving Koreans over the last 13 years but no abductions, the official said.

"Kidnappings, murders and robberies take place very frequently in Libya targeting not just our people but foreigners in general. Most cases are for money and valuables or religious purposes, but for this one we don't know yet," the official added.

The embassy has contacted the Libyan police, militia groups and state agencies in charge of foreign policy, defence, intelligence and domestic affairs to help discover Han's location and secure his safety and freedom.

The ministry set up an emergency response team at its Seoul headquarters and embassy in Tripoli. It issued a special travel warning across the country advising swift evacuation, while calling on the Libyan ambassador to Korea to request cooperation with the case.

More than 550 Koreans reside in the oil-rich nation; many of them work for construction and engineering companies.

KOTRA also formed a task force and dispatched Han Sun-hee, chief of its Mideast bureau, to the Libyan city. The Seoul-based agency runs 15 units across the Middle East and North Africa including in Dubai and Cairo.

Korea and Libya have been working to boost trade and cooperation on infrastructure construction since the death in late 2011 of Moammar Gadhafi, who ruled Tripoli for about four decades until the Arab Spring broke out.

But safety concerns persist due to simmering religious and sectarian clashes, with the Tripoli Tower housing the KOTRA office seized by militia for several days last month. The country's lawlessness was highlighted in October, when its prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was snatched by rebels from his hotel room and held captive for hours.