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15.03.2009 Sudan

Seized Darfur aid workers freed

By BBC


Three foreign aid workers abducted in the troubled Sudanese region of Darfur three days ago have been released.

The Medecins Sans Frontieres staff - a French administrator, a Canadian nurse and an Italian doctor - were safely back in the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

They were freed on Saturday along with a Sudanese national, having been abducted at gunpoint on Wednesday.

"We are incredibly relieved that our colleagues are safe," said Christopher Stokes, a senior MSF official.

His statement followed disputed reports the hostages had been freed on Friday.

The group was taken to the town of El-Fasher in North Darfur by government helicopter before being transported to Khartoum on Saturday night.

Mr Stokes, general director of MSF's Belgian section, expressed his outrage at the abduction, which prompted MSF to evacuate almost all international staff from its Darfur projects.

He said the future of those projects remained uncertain because of the security situation in the area.

'Bashir's Eagles'
Laura Archer, Mauro D'Ascanio and Raphael Meunier were abducted on Wednesday evening from their office at Saraf Umra, an area under government control about 230km (143 miles) west of El Fasher.
Map

One of two Sudanese MSF employees seized at the same time was later freed. The other, watchman Sharif Mohamadin, was released at the same time as the three foreigners.

MSF had run the only health clinic for the Saraf Umra area's 60,000 residents.

The clinic is run by MSF's Belgian branch, which is not among more than a dozen aid groups expelled from Sudan after an international indictment was issued this month against President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

Khartoum has accused the groups of spying - a charge they strongly deny.

The Sudanese authorities initially said the gang responsible for the latest abductions were bandits seeking a cash ransom.

Both the local Sudanese governor and Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini insisted no ransom had been paid to secure the release of the hostages.

North Darfur Governor Osman Yusuf Kibir said the kidnappers were from a group calling themselves the Eagles of Bashir, which was protesting against the International Criminal Court's issuing of an arrest warrant against Mr Bashir.

"They released them for the country's sake and they kidnapped them for the sake of the country," he said.

Although banditry is common in parts of the region, the latest kidnapping is thought to have been the first of Western aid workers since two Britons were briefly detained by Darfur rebels in 2005.

The UN has said Sudan's decision to order out the aid groups has placed more than one million lives at risk.

The UN estimates that 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million been displaced since black African rebels took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-dominated regime demanding a greater share of resources and power.

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