Four kidnapped South African peacekeepers have made their first contact with their mission in Sudan’s Darfur region, a force spokesman says. “Now we have proof of life,” said Noureddine Mezni, spokesman of the largest UN-funded peacekeeping mission in the world (UNAMID). “We were able to talk to our colleagues, all four of them, and they are fine.”
The two men and two women were taken from just outside Darfur’s largest town Nyala five days ago, and a group purporting to be their captors told Reuters they were demanding a ransom of around US$450 000. A wave of kidnappings of foreign nationals in Sudan’s west has restricted aid operations to the more than 4 million people affected by the rebellion in the vast desert region, mostly by young armed men demanding money.
The South African departments of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), defence (DoD) and police are meanwhile working with the UN and the Sudanese government to free four South African police advisers kidnapped, apparently by mistake, on Sunday.
The DoD issued a statement on the kidnapping on behalf of itself and DIRCO as defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu is currently acting international relations minister; the incumbent presently being in Brazil with President Jacob Zuma. “The members are in Sudan to assist the Sudanese police force. The abduction [sic] has been officially confirmed by the second in command of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Sudan, Major General Ray Mdutyana of the South African National Defence Force.
The kidnappers have made contact with the UN peacekeeping forces, the DoD says. “The South African government is using all diplomatic and other channels at all levels to ensure the safe return of these members of the South African Police Force. The Sudanese government has been requested to assist,” the DoD added.
“We wish to assure the South African public that the government will pull out all stops to bring these peacekeepers home safely. Officials of the Department of Defence are working together with the South African Police Force, the DIRCO and the UN Peacekeeping Force to provide continued effort.
“The DoD will communicate further information as and when it is received.”
The Sudan Tribune meanwhile reports online that a Darfuri group has admitted that one of its commanders had kidnapped the four peacekeepers. The Democratic People’s Struggle Movement (DPSM), a splinter group from the former rebel SLM-Free Will faction, has also expressed its readiness to release them. It says the commander was not aware of a deal they signed recently with the government.
DPSM chairman Jibril Bukhari said in a statement released yesterday the commander who kidnapped the four South African police advisers was not informed about an agreement they had signed with the government on Saturday.
National police commissioner General Bheki Cele says he was shocked to learn earlier this week of the kidnapping. The four, two men and two women, were returning from their operational base to their accommodation but never arrived at their accommodation near Nyala in south Darfur.
“I am constantly being kept updated on developments relating to our four members, regrettably to date it is unknown exactly what happened to our members” said Cele. “I am deeply concerned that no information is forthcoming about their whereabouts and I earnestly appeal for people in the know to please come forward with information”, added the police chief.
Cele added he has instructed “that during this very difficult time the families of the four members be kept informed of what has been transpiring. My thoughts and prayers are with the family during this exceptionally difficult time” the general said. His comments followed a visit to the families by senior officers.
The police chief went on to say that he is in close contact with his colleague, Ayanda Ntsaluba of the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) “so that government’s efforts are being coordinated to ascertain their whereabouts and safe return of the four members to SA.”
Cele said UNAMID, the hybrid United Nations African Union force in Darfur has “continued to mobilise all its resources in the region and is working in close cooperation with the government of Sudan and local authority in the search for our missing colleagues.”
Reuters adds reports from tribal leaders of money exchanging hands has fuelled the abductions, although the government denies paying any cash to the kidnappers. Last month the last foreign hostage was freed. Red Cross worker Gauthier Lefevre was the longest-held hostage, spending 147 days in captivity before being rescued by Sudanese security forces. Sudan said it had arrested one member of the “criminal gangs” who abducted Lefevre but most remain at large.
Mezni said they had not had a request for ransom but that the mission’s policy was not to pay. The kidnappings began last year after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to face charges of masterminding war crimes in Darfur. Bashir dismisses the court, calling it a colonial conspiracy.
The western Darfur region has been troubled by seven years of conflict, pitting mostly non-Arab rebels against Sudan government forces and allied militias.
Pic: An archive photo of SA police on parade in Darfur