March 12, 2009 / 10:15 AM / 9 years ago

International aid workers kidnapped in Darfur

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Three international aid workers have been kidnapped in Darfur, officials said on Thursday, further complicating humanitarian operations in Sudan’s west.

The three workers from the Belgian arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres were seized as tension escalated in Sudan following the decision by the International Criminal Court this month to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir over accusations of war crimes in Darfur.

“We can confirm that a group of armed men went to the location and ordered five persons to follow them. They were three international staff and two national staff,” said Kemal Saiki, communications director for UNAMID peacekeepers in Darfur. UNAMID said the kidnapping took place late on Wednesday.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Belgium said that the two Sudanese nationals were quickly released but the three foreigners continued to be held. It identified them as a Canadian nurse, an Italian doctor and a French coordinator.

“Our thoughts are with the colleagues and families of those abducted. MSF is deeply concerned about their safety and is doing everything it can to determine their whereabouts and ensure their safe and swift return,” an MSF statement said.

The kidnapping took place in Saraf Omra in north Darfur, where MSF Belgium runs a health clinic and dispensary serving tens of thousands of people, said Susan Sandars, an MSF spokeswoman in Nairobi, Kenya.

International experts say at least 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur, a mainly desert region in western Sudan, while Khartoum says 10,000 have died. The conflict flared when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.

CHANGING ENVIRONMENT

Some analysts say the ICC warrant could spark more violence in Darfur, where peacekeepers and civilians have been caught in the middle of the conflict. Aid officials have said they feared humanitarian workers could be targeted.

“This is a game-changing scenario,” said one aid worker who declined to be named, referring to the abductions. “If the worse case happens, Darfur is going to be a totally different environment for us.”

The African nation shut down 16 aid organizations after the ICC decision, saying they helped the court in the Hague, an accusation aid groups deny. Two arms of MSF were among those asked to leave, although MSF Belgium was not among them.

Speaking on Wednesday before the abductions, MSF Belgium’s Operations Director Stephan Goetghebuer told Reuters his staff in Darfur had faced growing antagonism in the days after the global court’s announcement.

“MSF has never collaborated with the ICC. Yet, it’s obvious that part of the population in Sudan took these accusations about NGOs very seriously,” he said.

Before the expulsions, the United Nations and aid groups were running the world’s largest humanitarian operation in Darfur. U.N. agencies have said they could not fill the gap left by NGO partners who handed out food, monitored for diseases, and provided clean water and healthcare across Darfur.

The U.S. embassy in Khartoum authorized the voluntary departure of non-essential staff on Tuesday, partly as a rebuke to Sudan for expelling aid groups. Violence has continued, with gunmen wounding four peacekeepers in an ambush on Monday.

In one speech last week Bashir said the expelled groups were “spies and thieves,” and a pro-government newspaper printed a photo of one international aid worker, saying the officer was an intelligence officer for Israel, an arch-foe of Sudan.

Reporting by Andrew Heavens in Khartoum and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Dominic Evans

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