- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

KHARTOUM, SUDAN (AP) - Officials from the joint U.N.-African Union peackeeping force in Darfur say the kidnapped foreign aid workers have been released.

Kemal Saiki, communication director for the force, says the men arrived Saturday at El Fasher airport in North Darfur.

Josephine Guerraro, the force’s spokeswoman confirmed their release via text message, describing them as “in good health.” She said released included the three foreigners and one Sudanese.

The aid workers from the Belgian branch of Doctors Without Borders were snatched from their compound in northern Darfur late on Wednesday night.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) _ Three kidnapped foreign aid workers in Darfur have not been released, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said Saturday, describing earlier reports that they were freed as premature.

But efforts were under way to release the Doctors Without Borders workers, who were kidnapped from their compound in Darfur on Wednesday, said spokesman Ali Sadiq.

“They have not been released,” he said. “But we are expecting their release anytime during the course of the day.” He did not elaborate.

Doctors Without Borders spokeswoman Susan Sandars said the humanitarian group has not been able to contact the workers _ a Canadian nurse, an Italian doctor and a French coordinator _ since reports surfaced Friday that they had been freed.

“We have had no direct contact until now,” Sandars said Saturday, speaking from Nairobi, Kenya.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry, which had reported late Friday that the workers were released, also said Saturday that it had not been able to “establish contact” with the workers.

The kidnappings further ignited fears about a backlash against foreigners in Sudan after an 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.

It remains unclear who took the workers hostage. The area where the gunmen kidnapped them is government controlled, and pro-government Arab militias are based nearby.

Sudan’s humanitarian affairs minister said the kidnappers have asked for a ransom and are demanding that the tribunal’s indictment against President Omar al-Bashir be thrown out _ the first indication the kidnapping is tied to the court’s warrant.

But State Minister for Humanitarian Affairs Ahmed Haroun denied that government was behind the kidnapping.

“Is it logical for any respectable and responsible government in the world to hold three foreigners hostage?” Haroun told the pro-government Akhbar al-Youm newspaper in an interview published Saturday. Haroun is also wanted by the ICC for war crimes, but the Sudanese government has refused to hand him over.

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, which is also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, 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 three foreign aid workers were taken captive when armed men broke into their compound in northwest Darfur. Two Sudanese workers were also kidnapped. Initial reports said they both were released, but reports on Friday said one Sudanese remained captive.

The aid group could not verify that information on Saturday, and spokesman Erwin Van’t Land said he could not comment on reports that kidnappers were demanding a ransom and that the ICC cancel its warrant.

The Netherlands-based 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, according to the U.N. Sudan denies the charges and says the figures are exaggerated.

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