KHARTOUM, (Reuters) – Five aid workers from the Belgian arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres, including three Westerners, have been kidnapped in Sudan’s Darfur region, the UNAMID peacekeeping force said on Thursday.
The kidnapping came as tension escalated in Sudan following the decision by the International Criminal Court this month to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir over accusations of war crimes in Darfur.
“We can confirm that a group of armed men went to the location and ordered five persons to follow them. They were three international staff and two national staff,” Kemal Saiki, communications director for UNAMID said.
“We have had reports one of the national staff has been released,” he added. UNAMID had earlier said that six aid workers were kidnapped in an area of north Darfur 200 km (125 miles) west of the provincial capital El Fasher.
A U.N. official who asked not to be named said the foreigners were of Italian, French and Canadian nationality. MSF’s Brussels office confirmed that a number of its staff had been kidnapped but gave no further details. There was no immediate comment from the Belgian foreign ministry.
Some analysts say the ICC warrant could spark more violence in Darfur, where peacekeepers and civilians have been caught in the middle of the conflict. Gunmen wounded four peacekeepers in an ambush on Monday, and several other incidents have been reported.
The African nation shut down 16 aid organisations after the ICC decision, saying they helped the court in the Hague. Two arms of MSF were among those asked to leave, although MSF-Belgium was not among them.
Later, the U.S. embassy authorised the voluntary departure of non-essential staff, partly as a rebuke to Sudan for expelling aid groups.
International experts say at least 200,000 people have been killed in Darfur, a mainly desert region in western Sudan, while Khartoum says 10,000 have died. The conflict flared when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.