- Darfur - kidnapping - NGOs - Sudan
AFP - Three foreign aid workers are being held by kidnappers in Darfur, officials said on Thursday, underscoring rising security fears in Sudan following the arrest warrant against its veteran president.
A Canadian nurse, Italian doctor and a French administrator were among five employees of the Belgian branch of Medicins sans Frontieres kidnapped at gunpoint on Wednesday night from their office in North Darfur.
A Sudanese official said the three were "okay" and that the government -- which last week expelled 13 international relief agencies from war-torn Darfur -- was working to release them as soon as possible.
"Medecins Sans Frontieres confirms the abduction last night of three international volunteers in Saraf Umra, in the Sudanese province of North Darfur. Two Sudanese personnel, captured at the same time, were quickly released," said an MSF statement issued in Brussels.
"MSF is deeply concerned about their security and is doing everything in its power to learn where they are so as to secure their release as quickly as possible," it said.
In Rome, the foreign ministry confirmed that an Italian was among those seized in the attack, which came after warnings from the United Nations and the United States about security problems in Sudan.
The Sudanese official said the captive foreigners had been allowed a phone call to colleagues, but did not elaborate on who was behind the kidnapping.
"They talked to their colleagues. They are okay. We are working to release them as fast as possible," said Mohammed Abdel Rahman, chief of Sudan's commission for human rights associations.
The French and Dutch branches of MSF (Doctors Without Borders) were among 13 groups kicked out last week after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for President Omar al-Beshir for war crimes over the six-year conflict in Darfur.
Khartoum charges that the aid groups collaborated with the ICC, which accuses Beshir of orchestrating a campaign of murder, torture, rape, forcible displacement and pillage in the vast largely desert western region.
More than 180 foreign aid workers have since left Sudan, according to the United Nations, which has warned that hundreds of thousands of aid-dependent people were being put at risk.
US President Barack Obama warned on Tuesday that the expulsions were "not acceptable," saying: "We have a potential crisis of even greater dimensions than we already saw."
Sudan's UN envoy said on Wednesday his government was willing to allow any "well-meaning" aid agencies in but that the expulsion order was "irreversible."
On Tuesday, the US embassy in Khartoum said it was allowing non-essential staff to leave Sudan and had introduced "heightened security measures" after receiving information of "terrorist threats" aimed at Western interests.
Americans were also advised against travelling to Sudan "due to uncertain security conditions following the expulsion of NGOs as well as harassment of humanitarian aid workers, employees of non-governmental organisations, and Westerners in general."
Sudanese army jeeps blocked roads leading to the French embassy in Khartoum on Tuesday and troops secured a perimeter around the mission after a Sudanese newspaper reported that militant groups had vowed suicide attacks against French, as well as British and US interests.
The United Nations says about 300,000 people have died in Darfur from the combined results of war, famine and disease after ethnic rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in February 2003, complaining of discrimination.
Another 2.7 million have been displaced and live in dozens of mud-hut camps in a region the size of France and one of the most remote areas on the planet.