- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

KHARTOUM, SUDAN (AP) - The international aid organization Doctors Without Borders has started removing almost all of its foreign staff members from the volatile Darfur region days after the abduction of three of their colleagues.

A spokeswoman for the organization, Susan Sandars, said Friday that 35 of its foreign staff will leave Darfur. Only two foreign staffers will remain in the region to negotiate the release of the kidnapped workers.

The abductions Wednesday came after a decision by the International Criminal Court on March 4 to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on war crimes charges in connection with the six-year conflict in Darfur.

The court has accused al-Bashir of orchestrating atrocities against civilians in Darfur, where his Arab-led government has been battling ethnic African rebels since 2003. Up to 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million have been driven from their homes. Sudan denies the charges and says the figures are exaggerated.

The government warned even before the warrant was issued that the case could lead to revenge attacks by Sudanese, but said it would try to protect aid workers, peacekeepers and other foreigners.

It is not yet clear if the kidnapping is related to the ICC warrant, but Sudanese officials say the tribunal’s decision has encouraged lawlessness.

The kidnappers have demanded a ransom, officials have said, without providing more details.

After the court’s decision, Sudan expelled 13 foreign aid groups from Darfur, including some branches of Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF. Some branches of the group, including the Belgian organization that employed the kidnapped Canadian, Italian and French health workers, were allowed to stay.

Now, however, almost all of the organization’s Darfur foreign staffers will be leaving. The organization still has a network of local, Sudanese staff. Some of them will be relocated to Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, as well because of security concerns, MSF officials said.

A Foreign Ministry official, Ali Youssef, said Friday, “It is difficult to know” who the kidnappers are, but he ruled out that they had any connection with the government or a political agenda.

“It is apparently about money,” he said, describing it as an “escalation” of the lawlessness of Darfur.

The kidnapping took place in a government-controlled area of Darfur, with an Arab militia base nearby.

Sudan’s official news agency reported Thursday that the Central Bank has sent notifications to Sudanese banks to freeze the accounts of the 13 international groups as well as three local groups that were named in the expulsion and closure order. A government official who deals with the aid groups said Friday the order is to prevent the groups transferring their money abroad.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said a financial review will be conducted to identify where the groups spent their money.

An aid worker from an expelled organization who was contacted about the decision said the group was not officially notified of the decision. The aid worker was not allowed to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some of the 13 foreign aid groups have separately reported the confiscation of their equipment, data files, computers and phones.

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