- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

KHARTOUM, SUDAN (AP) - Three foreign aid workers kidnapped in Sudan’s lawless Darfur region were freed Saturday and were on their way back to Khartoum, said the aid group’s spokesman and the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force.

Sudanese television showed the foreign workers stepping off a military helicopter at El Fasher airport in North Darfur with the local governor, who said the abduction was a response to the arrest warrant issued for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the International Criminal Court.

“It was a reaction to the ICC decision,” said Osman Kebir on TV, referring to the Netherlands-based tribunal, which has charged al-Bashir with responsibility for war crimes in Darfur.

The group work with the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, and were kidnapped on Wednesday by armed men who stormed their compound.

Kebir condemned the kidnapping and said it did more harm than good.

He said those who seized the aid workers from Canada, Italy and France believed they were doing it “for the sake of the country.” The governor said the three were released without conditions or ransom.

He did not identify the kidnappers and said they never met them but only communicated by telephone. The aid workers were left to be picked up in a remote spot more than 187 miles (300 kilometers) from El Fasher.

“I would like to say to everybody we are safe, we are here, we are in good health,” said Raphael Meunier, the French coordinator from the group, speaking on Sudanese television. “We will be more talkative a bit later on, now our first thoughts are for our families.”

A Sudanese worker with the three foreigners was also released, said UNAMID spokeswoman Josephine Guerraro. Another Sudanese worker kidnapped with them was released earlier.

Erwin Van’t Land from the group’s headquarters in Brussels said his staff on the ground in Darfur confirmed the release, but he had no further information. “They need to catch their breath first,” he said.

The kidnappings had further ignited fears about a backlash against foreigners in Sudan after the international court issued an arrest warrant earlier this month against Sudan’s president for war crimes in Darfur.

Sudanese officials have said the International Criminal Court’s decision encouraged lawlessness and warned that “unruly” elements might react angrily.

The area where the gunmen kidnapped them is government controlled, and pro-government Arab militias are based nearby.

In response to the March 4 indictment against al-Bashir, Sudan expelled 13 international aid groups working in Darfur, including two branches of Doctors Without Borders, accusing them of cooperating with the International Criminal Court. Al-Bashir, who rejects the court’s charges, has threatened to kick out more aid groups as well as diplomats and peacekeepers.

Three other branches of Doctors Without Borders had remained in Darfur. But the group decided to pull out its remaining 35 international workers after Wednesday’s kidnapping, temporarily halting the group’s operations. Only two staff remained to negotiate the hostages’ release.

The international tribunal 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, according to the U.N. Sudan denies the charges and says the figures are exaggerated.

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