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.
The Italian Foreign Ministry said late Friday that it received information that the aid workers — a Canadian nurse, an Italian doctor and a French coordinator — were freed.
But Doctors Without Borders spokeswoman Susan Sandars said the humanitarian group had not been able to contact the workers since they were informed about their possible release.
“We have had no direct contact until now,” Sandars said Saturday, speaking from Nairobi, Kenya.
There have been fears about a backlash against foreigners in Sudan after an international court issued an arrest warrant against Sudan’s president for war crimes there.
In response to the March 4 indictment, 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. President Omar 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 Medicins 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 groups’ operations. Only two staff remained to negotiate the hostages’ release.
The three were taken captive when armed men broke into their compound in northwest Darfur. Two Sudanese workers were also kidnapped. Initial reports said they both had been released, but reports on Friday said one Sudanese remains captive. The aid group could not verify that information on Saturday.
It remains unclear if the kidnapping was related to the ICC warrant. The area where the kidnapping occurred is government controlled, and pro-government Arab militias are based nearby.
Sudanese officials have said the tribunal’s decision has encouraged lawlessness and had warned that “unruly” elements might react angrily.
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.