Doubts linger over Darfur hostages

March 14, 2009 12:00 am

, KHARTOUM Mar 14 – Three foreign aid workers, who had been taken hostage in the war-torn Sudanese region of Darfur, were freed after two days in captivity, Sudanese authorities told medical charity Doctors Without Borders.

However doubts remained about their release, with the group MSF saying it could not confirm they had been freed as there had been no contact with the kidnapped aid workers.

"I can confirm that we received the assurance from the Sudanese authorities that they have been released," a spokeswoman Susan Sandars told AFP by telephone from Nairobi.

But a Brussels-based spokesman for the Belgian branch of MSF, for whom the Italian doctor, Canadian nurse and French administrator were working, stressed he could not confirm they had been freed.

"For the moment, MSF is not confirming the release," Koen Baetens told AFP. "We have been informed by the Sudanese authorities. But we have not seen, not heard or had any direct contact with our colleagues."

And the Italian foreign ministry, which had announced the release earlier, said late on Friday it was trying to check the reports given "the absence of contacts between MSF and its members."

A short ministry statement carried by the Italian ANSA news agency had announced the news but gave no immediate details of the circumstances of the release of the trio, kidnapped at gunpoint on Wednesday in Saraf Umra in North Darfur.

Italian MSF sources insisted that no ransom was paid for the hostages’ release and that the kidnappers had made no political demands either.

North Darfur Governor Osman Mohammed Yusef Kabir said on Thursday that the kidnappers had demanded a ransom.

The French foreign ministry said it had been notified of the hostages’ release but was waiting for the trio to rejoin their colleagues before being in a position to officially confirm it.

MSF spokesman Baetens said earlier that the three hostages remained in good health despite their ordeal.

But he added that a fourth hostage – a Sudanese national who had previously reported as having been freed – was still in captivity.

"The information that two (Sudanese staff) were freed is not correct," Baetens said. "One Sudanese national who was kidnapped was not released, so we are talking about four staff."

The identity of the kidnappers remained unclear although the Sudanese foreign ministry blamed "bandits" for the abduction.

The seizure of the aid workers dealt a fresh blow to relief efforts in Darfur where an estimated 2.7 million people have fled their homes during six years of conflict between ethnic minority rebels and the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.

Last week, the government expelled 13 foreign relief agencies after the International Criminal Court ordered President Omar al-Beshir’s arrest for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, a move the United Nations warned would have a severe impact on aid distribution.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon again urged Khartoum to rescind the expulsion order and said he was "deeply concerned" by the abductions.

Since the issue of the warrant – the court’s first against a sitting head of state – the United Nations and United States have warned of security problems in Sudan and threats to foreign targets.

The kidnapping has shaken aid groups working in Darfur, one of the continent’s remotest regions.

Thirty workers with MSF left Darfur for Khartoum, a spokeswoman said on Friday, adding that the rest of the group’s 35 workers had stayed behind to support their captive colleagues.

MSF’s Dutch and French chapters were among the 13 groups ordered out of Darfur by the Sudanese government.

The UN says 300,000 people have died since the conflict erupted there in 2003. Khartoum puts the figure at 10,000.


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