Sudan

Kidnapped peacekeepers freed in Sudan's Darfur

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By Andrew Heavens

KHARTOUM, Dec 13 (Reuters) - Two civilian peacekeepers were freed by kidnappers in Sudan's Darfur region on Sunday after more than 100 days in captivity, officials said.

Gunmen abducted the Nigerian man and the Zimbabwean woman from Darfur's joint U.N./African Union peacekeeping mission in the west Darfur town of Zalingei in August in one of a new wave of kidnappings.

"They have been released ... This is the end of a long nightmare," said Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for the UNAMID peacekeepers. "They are in good shape. We are very happy to have them back."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon took the unusual step of phoning Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir this month to ask him to step up efforts to free the two peacekeepers.

United Nations officials said the Nigerian man was a UNAMID security officer, while the Zimbabwean woman was part of the force's child protection team.

It was not clear what the kidnappers had been demanding as the price of the hostages' freedom.

A spokesman for Sudan's Foreign Ministry, Moawia Osman Khalid, told Reuters negotiations with the kidnappers had been carried out via local elders.

"No ransom was paid at all," he said.

There have been reports that both fell ill during their captivity, although UNAMID officers said there was a chance the kidnappers were making up the reports to step up pressure.

Gunmen have abducted at least 14 foreigners in Darfur and just over its border in neighbouring Chad and the Central African Republic since March.

Aid workers say they have had to take extra security precautions and scale down work in remote areas to protect their staff.

Two workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are among the foreigners still in captivity. Armed men seized Gauthier Lefevre, a dual French-British citizen, from west Darfur in October, and Laurent Maurice, a Frenchman, from neighbouring Chad in November.

Lefevre was allowed to phone his family and employers on Thursday, Sudan's state minister for humanitarian affairs Abdel Baqi al-Jailani said, and was still in good health.

Kidnappers are also still holding two workers for the French aid group Triangle who were abducted in the Central African Republic in November.

Abductions of foreigners were almost unheard-of in Darfur before the first abduction in March. Sudanese authorities say most of the kidnappers have been bandits seeking ransom.

Some of the groups have declared political motives and Darfur aid workers say they have faced increased hostility since March, when the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Bashir to face charges of orchestrating atrocities in Darfur.

Sudan's government recently formed a think-tank to come up with ways of dealing with the surge in abductions, Jailani said.

"Kidnapping is a well-known phenomenon in Somalia or Nigeria, but this is a new culture coming in (to Sudan). We need to study it," he said.

A counter-insurgency campaign against rebels who took up arms in Darfur in 2003 drove more than 2 million people from their homes and created a humanitarian crisis, which the United Nations says has claimed 300,000 lives.

The Sudanese government says 10,000 have died, and accuses Western media of exaggerating the conflict.

(Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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