UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Pro-government militia in the southern Sudan released on Thursday two African pilots and an American U.N. official they had held hostage for more than a week, the United Nations announced.
The three were taken to Malakal, a government garrison town and capital of the Upper Nile, in a Sudan government helicopter and then flown by the United Nations to the northwest Kenyan border post of Lokichokio, a base for U.N. operations to the Sudan.
But a fourth hostage, a Sudanese aid worker, was not allowed to leave Malakal for Kenya after being freed with his colleagues in Old Fangak in the Panjuk area of the Upper Nile, about 470 miles south of the capital Khartoum. The men were captured on Feb. 3.
The Sudanese, who worked with a humanitarian group based in Kenya, was told to remain behind for one day and a U.N. security officer stayed with him, according to Alfred Ironside, a spokesman for UNICEF, the U.N. Children's Fund.
''We are expecting him to rejoin the group in Lokichokio early as Friday,'' he said.
U.N. officials in Kenya named the American as Lee Patterson but did not release the names of the two pilots, who they identified as one South African and one Kenyan. In New York, the United Nations said both pilots were Kenyans.
All four captives were associated with the U.N.-sponsored Operation Lifeline-Sudan, which includes U.N. agencies as well as other aid groups. The operation, until the hostage-taking, ran several relief flights a week into embattled south Sudan where more than 2 million civilians have died in a civil war and famine since 1983.
Sharad Sapra, coordinator of the Operation Lifeline-Sudan, told reporters at Lokichokio airport he was happy that negotiations with the Khartoum government resulted in the release of three colleagues.
''We negotiated for the release of four people. We are trying to find out what happened in Malakal,'' he added.
The U.N. resident coordinator in the Sudan, Philippe Borel, who had conducted negotiations with the Khartoum government, said earlier the captors had been making impossible demands. The breakthrough was only achieved on Thursday,
The original hijacked aircraft, chartered by the U.N. World Food Program (WFP), was still in Old Fangak because of mechanical difficulties, Ironside said.
The pro-government Sudanese newspaper Akhbar al-Youm said the plane was being held by a pro-Khartoum militia led by Gabriel Tanginya. He was said to be angry because another U.N.-leased plane had ferried three of his commanders from Fangak to another area last month. The three were then detained by militias loyal to the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army.
The war in the Sudan pits the Islamic government in Khartoum against mainly Christian and animist rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Army in the south.
The picture is complicated by inter-factional fighting, especially in oil-rich Upper Nile where numerous pro-government and rebel militia leaders are fighting for supremacy.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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