Three international aid workers have been kidnapped in Darfur but the Sudanese government says it has located them and is negotiating with the abductors.
“We know where they are … We have established a link with them and we are discussing their terms,” foreign ministry undersecretary Mutrif Siddig, told Reuters.
The three workers from the Belgian arm of medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres were seized along with two Sudanese staff on Wednesday, a move that further jeopardised humanitarian efforts in Sudan’s violent west.
MSF in Belgium had said the two Sudanese were quickly released but the three foreigners were still being held. It identified them as a Canadian nurse, an Italian doctor and a French coordinator.
Catholic missionary news agency MISNA gave their names as Laura Archer, Mauro D’Ascanio and Raphael Meonier.
The kidnappings came after tensions rose in Sudan following the International Criminal Court’s decision last week to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir over accusations of war crimes in Darfur.
Siddig said the Sudanese government would avoid any action that could hurt the aid workers and was not planning to approach the group.
“The kidnappers are on the move because they fear they might be attacked by security forces but we are not going to do anything to endanger their safety,” he said.
Siddig said the kidnappers’ demands did not include suspending the International Criminal Court’s war crimes case against Bashir, as was reported in a pan-Arab paper on Friday.
But he declined to go into further detail about the identity of the abductors or their terms while negotiations were ongoing.
MSF on Friday said it had suspended all its operations in Darfur and pulled around 30 international staff back to Khartoum as a security move after the abductions in the north Darfur town of Saraf Omra.
“We are extremely concerned for our staff and for the people we were trying to assist in Darfur,” said MSF’s Nairobi-based spokeswoman Susan Sandars.
She said there were particular worries for Saraf Omra, where MSF ran the only health clinic for the area’s 60,000 residents. “Now there will be no general health care, no surgical capacity, no emergency transport for critical patients,” said Sandars.
Sudan shut down 16 aid organisations after the ICC decision, saying they had helped the international court in the Hague, an accusation aid groups deny. Two arms of MSF were among those asked to leave, although MSF Belgium was not among them.
Aid officials have said they feared humanitarian workers could be targeted in the highly charged atmosphere after the global court’s judgment.
Sudan’s state media and government officials have used emotive rhetoric against the 13 expelled groups over the past week, accusing them of spying on the country and doing little to help Darfuris.
Pro-government newspaper Akhir Lahzah on Friday published an interview with a senior health official criticising MSF’s decision to suspend its Darfur operations after the kidnappings as a “spiteful act” made in retaliation to the expulsions.
United Nations reaction
UN chief Ban Ki-moon meanwhile says Sudan still has time to seek deferral of an international warcrimes indictment of its president, but should first act itself against human rights abuses in Darfur.
“You cannot say that it’s too late,” the UN secretary-general told a monthly news conference. “Even now I think that (the Sudanese) … can take and they should take necessary measures.”
The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant on March 4 for al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
But under Article 16 of the court’s statute, the UN Security Council can delay any proceedings for a renewable period of one year. African and Arab states, as well as Security Council members China and Russia, are pressing for such a deferral, saying peace prospects in Sudan will otherwise be damaged.
Ban said that before the arrest warrant was issued he had urged Bashir to take credible “domestic judiciary measures” to implement a 2005 Security Council resolution referring the Darfur issue to the ICC.
“That’s the only way which can be regarded as meeting the requirement of Article 16,” he said.
Ban did not elaborate but appeared to be suggesting that Khartoum should take legal action against two other Sudanese men, Ahmed Haroun and Ali Kushayb, indicted by the ICC in 2007 over Darfur. Sudan has not so far prosecuted them.
Although some Western states are uneasy over the ICC indictment of Bashir, the United States, Britain and France have said they see no case for a deferral at the moment. Those three western countries, with their veto power in the Security Council, could quash any move to invoke Article 16.
Western officials have hinted, however, they might rethink their stance against a deferral if Bashir were to prosecute Haroun and Kushayb, call off military actions in Darfur and improve conditions for UN and African Union peacekeepers in Sudan.
Article 16 does not spell out any conditions under which ICC proceedings can be delayed, leaving the decision to the Security Council.
UN officials say up to 300 000 people have been killed in Darfur, a mainly desert region, while Khartoum says 10 000 have died. The conflict flared when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the government in 2003.
Sudan, which is not a party to the ICC statute, said on Tuesday it was looking at how to get the arrest warrant against Bashir suspended or quashed.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ali Al-Sadig said officials were considering referring the warrant to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and asking allies to push for a postponement of the case in the UN Security Council.
The ICJ is a separate institution from the ICC, and unlike the ICC is a UN body. One of its main jobs is to settle legal disputes given to it by United Nations member states.
“We are not going to campaign for an ‘Article 16’,” Sadig said. “But if other people campaign on our behalf, that would be a different thing.”