Kidnappers release two aid workers in Darfur, Sudan after more than 100 days

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Monday, October 19, 2009

The western region of Darfur
Image: ChrisO.

Two members of Irish aid agency GOAL, kidnapped in Sudan's Darfur region last July, were freed on Sunday, and are "in good health," according to Abdel Baqi al-Jailani Sudan's Minister for Humanitarian Affairs. Sharon Commins and Hilda Kawuki say they are "thrilled" to be free at last.

Capture and release

Irish citizen Commins, 32, and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kawuki, 42, were working for GOAL in a compound run by the charity in the North Darfur town of Kutum. Armed men seized them on July 3.

Following their release early Sunday morning they described their captivity as a "difficult time", and thanked everyone who had worked to secure their freedom in a joint statement released through the GOAL. They were, "naturally thrilled to be released after such a long period in captivity".

"We know it must have been a traumatic period for our families especially and for our friends," they said. "It was of course, a difficult time - but we found strength in each other and in our friendship." They also could "hardly wait to get home" to spend time with their families.

Al-Gilani indicated the pair were in Kutum and due to fly to Khartoum later the same day prior to them respectively returning to Ireland and Uganda.

John O'Shea, president of GOAL, told AFP by telephone that, "[w]e are all relieved," and that all at the charity were particularly happy for their families. "We don't yet know when they will go home but we hope it is as soon as possible."

No ransom paid

Countering claims earlier in the year that the kidnappers demanded US$2 (1.34) million for the pair's release, al-Gilani stressed "no ransom was paid,". adding that local tribal chiefs pressured the kidnappers into freeing the aid workers.

Increased hostility and threats

The captors held the two aid workers for over 100 days, the longest-running kidnapping in Darfur since the 2003 start of the region's conflict. Until March, the longest an aid worker had been detained in Darfur was 24 hours.

Following the issue of an arrest warrant in March by the International Criminal Court for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for masterminding war crimes, aid workers say hostility and threats have increased towards them, and that Sudan's relations with foreign relief organisations have declined dramatically.

In March and April two civil workers of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and French aid agency Aide médicale internationale (International Medical Aid) were kidnapped then released after three and 26 days respectively. A different group still holds captive two employees of the region's joint United NationsAfrican Union peacekeeping force. These are the only two workers left in captivity.

No amnesty

To date, Sudanese authorities have not punished kidnappers; however al-Gilani announced yesterday that those responsible for the latest kidnapping must be brought to justice. In talking with AFP, he stated, "[t]hey must be punished otherwise there will be no more order". The government called the kidnappers "bandits" and state no amnesty will be granted for the release of aid workers.