Sunday, October 18, 2009

Two aid workers kidnapped in Darfur set free after 107 days

The mother of an Irish aid worker Sharon Commins (pictured) who was freed after being kidnapped in Sudan's

Two female staff of Irish aid agency GOAL who were kidnapped at gunpoint in Sudan's Darfur region in July were celebrating their release on Sunday from more than 100 days in captivity.

Irishwoman Sharon Commins, 33, and Ugandan Hilda Kawuki, 42, were kidnapped in the North Darfur town of Kutum on July 3 by a gang of armed men from a compound run by GOAL.

The two women were freed early Sunday after local tribal chiefs pressured the kidnappers into releasing them, a Sudanese minister said.

"We are naturally thrilled to be released after such a long period in captivity," Commins and Kawuki said in a statement released by GOAL.

"We now can hardly wait to get home and spend time with our loved ones," they added.

North Darfur state humanitarian affairs minister Abdel Baqi Gilani said that no ransom had been paid.

He said the two aid workers were in Kutum and were due to fly to the capital Khartoum later Sunday before returning home.

"We are all relieved," GOAL president John O'Shea told AFP.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said the kidnappers had late on Saturday contacted its representatives in Kutum to say they were ready to free the hostages.

"Last night we received a phone call from the kidnappers saying they were ready to hand over the two ladies," ICRC spokesman Saleh Dabbakeh told AFP. "We did not participate in the negotiations in any way."

Commins's mother said she was "absolutely overjoyed" at the news, while the Irish government also welcomed the releases.

"Oh my God, can you imagine, we just leapt out of bed when we heard the phone. We were just absolutely overjoyed," she told Ireland's state broadcaster RTE.

She was informed of the release by Gilani and spoke to her daughter shortly afterwards.

Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, who travelled to Khartoum last month in an effort to secure the women's release, said he was "personally delighted and extremely relieved."

"I want to pay a personal tribute to the two women who have undergone such a difficult ordeal. Their personal courage and resilience has helped them through what must have been a traumatic experience," he said in a statement.

The UN's Sudan-based humanitarian coordinator, Ameerah Haq, welcomed the release of the GOAL aid workers, and thanked those who helped to free them.

"The kidnapping of Sharon Commins and Hilda Kawuki is a reminder of the dangers faced by humanitarians working to help the people of Sudan, often in circumstances of considerable personal risk," Haq said in a statement.

"The efforts by the Sudanese authorities and Darfurian community leaders constitutes a significant step towards ensuring that aid workers in Darfur can accomplish their humanitarian brief in a safe and secure environment," she said.

The two spent more than 100 days in captivity, the longest endured by foreign aid staff in Darfur since the conflict erupted in the western region in early 2003.

An International Criminal Court warrant in March accusing Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir of war crimes in Darfur triggered a sharp downturn in Sudan's relations with foreign relief organisations.

Two members of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres MSF) and French aid agency Aide Medicale Internationale (AMI) had been kidnapped in March and April then released after spending three days and 26 days respectively in captivity.

Sudanese authorities had not punished those responsible for the kidnappings which shook the aid community in Darfur.

Gilani said that those who carried out the latest kidnapping must be brought to justice.

"They must be punished otherwise there will be no more order" in Darfur, he told AFP.

Two civilian employees for the UN-African Union joint peacekeeping force in Darfur kidnapped in August at Zalingei in west Darfur are still in the hands of their abductors. They are the only hostages still kidnapped in Darfur.

The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million fled their homes since ethnic minority rebels in Darfur rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum in February 2003.

The government says 10,000 people have been killed.