- The Washington Times - Friday, March 13, 2009

KHARTOUM, Sudan

Armed men abducted three international aid workers and two Sudanese guards in Darfur, a week after the government in Khartoum ordered aid groups expelled in response to an international arrest warrant for the Sudanese president, officials said Thursday.

The kidnappings - believed to be the first of Westerners in Darfur - took place late Wednesday in a rural area known as Saraf Umra, about 125 miles west of the city of El Fasher, said Noureddine Mezni, a spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers in Khartoum.

The area is government controlled, and pro-government Arab militias known as janjaweed live and are based nearby.

The attackers stormed into the compound of the Belgian branch of the aid group Doctors Without Borders in the evening and abducted the staffers, said Susan Sandars, a Nairobi, Kenya-based spokeswoman for the group.

The two Sudanese guards were later released, but a Canadian nurse, an Italian doctor and a French coordinator were still being held, she said, adding there was no information on the motive or the whereabouts of the kidnapped. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the abduction.

The kidnappings come after Sudan expelled the 13 biggest aid groups from Darfur in response to the March 4 arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Bashir by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 6-year-old war in the region.

Many fear the warrant would make the foreign community in Sudan a target for anger and revenge attacks.

The French and Dutch branches of Doctors Without Borders were among the 13 groups expelled from Darfur. Its Belgian, Swiss and Spanish branches, however, were allowed to remain, along with dozens of other smaller aid organization.

Late Thursday, Christopher Stokes, director of the Belgian branch, said in Brussels that the organization decided to pull all its remaining staff from Darfur to Khartoum as a safety precaution until the abducted are freed.

The 13 expelled aid groups represented about 40 percent of the humanitarian personnel in Darfur. Authorities claimed the groups were cooperating with the ICC tribunal. Sudanese officials have warned that vigilantes could target foreigners, though they promised to try to protect them.

Aid workers or convoys are frequently attacked in Darfur by armed bandits from any of the many armed forces fighting there. Usually, aid workers are let go after their equipment is stolen, but some have been killed.

In February, two Sudanese working for the French Aide Medicale Internationale were killed by bandits. In 2006, a Sudanese working for Oxfam was kidnapped in the same area where the Wednesday kidnapping took place, and remained missing for at least two months, forcing Oxfam to shut down its offices there. The Sudanese was killed shortly after his release, when he got caught up in fighting while trying to get back to Saraf Umra.

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