- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

KHARTOUM, SUDAN (AP) - Three foreign aid workers kidnapped in Darfur were freed Saturday and were returning to Khartoum with an official who said they were abducted in response to the international arrest warrant issued for the Sudanese president.

Sudanese television showed the foreign workers stepping off a military helicopter at El Fasher airport in North Darfur with the local governor, Osman Kebir.

“It was a reaction to the ICC decision,” said Kebir, referring to the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court, which charged President Omar al-Bashir with responsibility for Darfur war crimes. He said the aid workers were released without conditions or ransom.

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

Kebir said the kidnapping did more harm than good. He said those who seized the workers from Canada, Italy and France believed they were doing it “for the sake of the country.”

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 court. Al-Bashir 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 pulled its remaining 35 international workers after the kidnapping. Only two staff remained to negotiate the hostages’ release.

The kidnappings had heightened fears about a backlash against foreigners in Sudan after the international court issued the arrest warrant earlier this month. Al-Bashir refuses any dealings with the court, and Sudanese officials have warned that “unruly” elements might react angrily.

Kebir did not identify the kidnappers, saying they 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 kidnapped with them was also released, said Josephine Guerraro, a spokeswoman with the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force. Another Sudanese worker was released earlier.

The area of the kidnapping is government controlled, and pro-government Arab militias are based nearby.

Al-Bashir is accused 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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