NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb 20 – Two Kenyan pilots held in South Sudan by the country’s rebel group returned to Nairobi Tuesday afternoon following their release from month-long captivity.
The pilots were released late Monday following intense negotiations by South Sudanese government officials and their counterparts from Kenya who accompanied them home.
The two were captured by the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) after their plane crash-landed in a rebel-held area on January 7, killing one person and 11 cows.
The plane was said to have suffered a technical hitch a few minutes after takeoff in the Akobo rebel-held region near South Sudan’s border with Ethiopia, according to the Standard newspaper.
“The families of the detained pilots have suffered great emotional and psychological distress during the unacceptable long period of detention,” Foreign Affairs Cabinet Secretary Ambassador Monica Juma who was at hand to welcome them at Wilson Airport said.
“The Government of the Republic of Kenya deplores the unfriendly and inhumane response of the SPLM-IO to what was an unfortunate accident,” she said condemning “the capture and detention of our Kenyan pilots in the strongest possible terms.”
Ambassador Juma also thanked the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) for aiding in securing the extradition of the pilots.
Captain Wachira, the owner of the plane told the media that US$107,743 was paid to secure the pilots’ release.
The Kenyan-owned plane was taking aid workers to the Akobo area to carry out an assessment on the food crisis in the area when it crashed, but none of the nine passengers on board suffered injuries.
The pilots suffered minor injuries.
Following the crash, the head of the UN Mission in South Sudan David Shearer hinted at a delicate situation in talks aimed at securing the freedom of the pilots saying with reports indicating SPLA-IO had demanded the payment of Sh20 million for the release of the two.
“As negotiations are going on I don’t want to make any comment, it may jeopardize the arrangements,” news agencies quoted him as saying.
Thousands of people have died and thousands more displaced in South Sudan as a result of a war that broke out between forces allied to President Salva Kiir and his former vice president Riek Machar who fled into exile in July 2016 when they failed to reconcile leadership wrangles.
The duo fought for decades for South Sudan’s independence which was attained in 2011.
A power struggled between Kiir and Machar in 2013 however led to a breakout of civil war which the country is yet to recover from.