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Conflicting reports over status of abducted aid workers

Latest update : 2009-03-14

Hours after Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Italy said its kidnapped staffers in Darfur were released, Sudanese officials denied the reports. The abducted aid workers include a Canadian nurse (photo), an Italian doctor and a French coordinator.

AFP - Three foreign aid workers taken hostage in the war-torn Darfur region of western Sudan "have not been freed yet" but will be "very soon," a high-ranking Sudanese official said Saturday.

"They have not been released yet. They will be very soon. They are in good shape," the official, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

The Italian doctor, Canadian nurse and French administrator with the medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) were kidnapped at gunpoint on Wednesday in Saraf Umra, in North Darfur.

MSF said on Friday it had received assurances from the Sudanese authorities that the aid workers had been released although it had not seen or had any direct contact with them.

A short statement by the Italian foreign ministry and carried by the Italian ANSA news agency on Friday announced the three had been freed but gave no details.

The Belgian branch of MSF, for whom the kidnapped trio were working, had treated the reports of the releases with caution.

"For the moment, MSF is not confirming the release," Brussels-based MSF spokesman Koen Baetens told AFP late Friday.

"We have been informed by the Sudanese authorities. But we have not seen, not heard or had any direct contact with our colleagues."

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini hailed their release as vindication for the low-profile response to the abductions taken by the authorities.

"Once again the decision to maintain a media silence and tight coordination between different institutions have made possible this expected and significant outcome," he said.

Canadian and French officials also indicated on Friday evening that they head received information that the hostages were released, but were unable to confirm the account.

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.

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.

Date created : 2009-03-14