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License plate made abducted American easy to spot

Thursday - 8/18/2011, 3:56pm  ET

AP: 59de26cb-e0a5-47ac-bd47-2b2c4e0488d2
A Pakistani police officer seen at the house of kidnapped American development expert Warren Weinstein in Lahore, Pakistan, Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011. A senior Pakistani police official says authorities have not been able to determine whether the men who kidnapped Weinstein were criminals or Islamic militants. (AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)

J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - U.S. agents combing through Lahore, Pakistan for information on the whereabouts of USAID contractor Warren Weinstein may have picked up an important lead from his vehicle.

"Something that jumped out at me was the very unique license plate on the victim's car which ended with (the number) 500," says Fred Burton, former deputy chief of the counterterrorism division of the U.S. State Department's Diplomatic Security Service.

A group of armed men snatched Weinstein, a 70-year-old development consultant who works for the Arlington, Va.-based J.E. Austin Associates, from his home in Lahore on Saturday. A senior Pakistani police official says authorities have not been able to determine whether the men who kidnapped Weinstein were criminals or Islamic militants, according to The Associated Press.

Burton says the number grouping on Weinstein's license plate may have made him a target and "clearly would've been very useful to any kind of pre-operational surveillance team, whether it was criminal or political in motivation."

American diplomats in residence in Pakistan are usually assigned a license plate from numbers set aside for Americans, Burton says. He believes Weinstein, who has a home in Rockville, may have been picked out and followed to his residence because many criminals know the license number sets American diplomats are usually given.

"Before we captured Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, he and the informant that we worked actually walked around the diplomatic areas in Islamabad, Pakistan and Yousef knew where the Americans and Brits lived based upon the license plates," Burton says.

The FBI, which is investigating the Weinstein case in Pakistan, referred all questions to the State Department, where spokesman Mark Toner tells WTOP officials are "concerned clearly about (Weinstein's) safety and well-being."

"We're in close contact with Pakistani authorities," Toner says.

"It's their investigation but we do have FBI personnel on the ground that are cooperating with them, and we believe that it's been a productive cooperation."

Toner would not elaborate on what "productive" means related to the investigation. He says officials have been in contact with Weinstein's family and are providing them with "counselor support."

When asked about claims of responsibility or ransom demands, he said, "No, not yet."

J.E. Associates also tells WTOP they have no comment at the moment beyond its statement, which reads in part:

"Dr. Warren Weinstein has worked for several J.E. Austin Associate's programs. All who know Dr. Warren know of his commitment to Pakistan's economic development and poverty reduction. These assignments are all undertaken with the supervision of Pakistani organizations. His efforts to help make Pakistani industries more competitive have resulted in many hundreds of well-paying jobs for Pakistani citizens and contributed to raising the standard of living in the communities where these businesses are located."

Imran Gardezi, press minister at the Embassy of Pakistan in D.C., tells WTOP Tuesday that "Weinstein's abduction is being investigated by the security agencies."

"His personal staff is being questioned and efforts are under way for his recovery ... that's what can be said at this stage," Gardezi says.

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(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)