April 12, 2009 / 2:42 PM / 10 years ago

NGO leading talks to free two aid workers in Sudan

KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A French aid group is leading talks to free two of its foreign workers snatched in Sudan’s Darfur region more than a week ago, after kidnappers told the government to stay out, an official and the group said.

The women, one Canadian and the other French, from Aid Medicale International (AMI) were seized from their compound in the south Darfur settlement of Ed el Fursan on April 4.

Last month, four members of Medecins Sans Frontieres were held for three days and released after the direct involvement of the Sudanese government in negotiations.

A foreign ministry official told Reuters the kidnappers had demanded the government be excluded from these talks that were being conducted directly with the aid group, adding that he expected the issue to be resolved peacefully soon.

“It is the NGO that is receiving the demands and answering and we are completely out of the picture,” said Ali Youssef Ahmed, head of protocol at Sudan’s Foreign Ministry.

AMI confirmed on Sunday they were leading the talks but declined to give further details “given the delicate nature of the affair and out of respect for the families concerned”.

Tensions have risen in Sudan since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir over alleged war crimes in Darfur. Bashir responded by ordering the expulsion of 16 aid groups.

Ahmed said the government did not know the kidnappers’ identity or demands, but that negotiations were making progress.

“It seems they are moving ahead, the kidnapped are OK, the two of them are alright. We feel that it is going to end peacefully soon,” Ahmed said.

The French and Canadian embassies had no comment.

Details about the kidnap have been sketchy, with one local newspaper saying it was in retaliation for the kidnapping of children from Chad by workers from another aid group and another saying a ransom had been demanded. Rebel groups active in the area deny involvement.

Six members of a humanitarian group Zoe’s Ark were stopped in 2007 from flying children, aged between one and 10, out of Chad to Europe. Chad said they had no authorisation to take the infants out of the country.

The area around Ed el Fursan, about 90 km (55 miles) southwest of the South Darfur capital Nyala, has seen an upsurge of fighting in recent weeks between members of the rival Habbaniya and Fallata tribes.

The clashes, rooted in long-standing disputes over land and other traditional rights, have escalated because of the supply of arms that has flooded in during the six-year Darfur conflict.

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