Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hopes rise for Irish and Ugandan aid workers kidnapped in Darfur

A kidnapped Irish aid worker spoke to her family for the first time in two months raising hopes of her release in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region. 32-year-old Sharon Commins was one of two employees of Irish aid agency Goal who was kidnapped on 3 July when six armed men stormed their building in the North Darfur town of Kutum. The attackers grabbed Commins and 42-year-old Ugandan co-worker Hilda Kawuki. Commins spoke to her mother in Dublin yesterday though the family have asked that the details of the conversation remain private (Photo of Sharon Commins by Goal / Press Association).

The concession from the kidnappers came after Irish Foreign Minister, Micheál Martin made a two day visit to the Sudanese capital Khartoum last weekend. Sudanese authorities say they know who the kidnappers are and are negotiating with tribal elders. The kidnappers want two million dollars in ransom, however Khartoum is refusing to pay a ransom for fear it will result in further kidnappings. Sudanese minister for humanitarian affairs Abdul Bagi al-Jailani has been trying to negotiate the release of the two aid workers and he said he is heartened by the phone call. He believes the women will be freed around 19 September to mark the end of Ramadan, a month of worship and forgiveness.

Last month, North Darfur state humanitarian affairs minister Abdel Baqi Al-Gilani said the kidnappers are members of a nomadic tribe in north Darfur. He said Sudan would forgive them if they gave up the woman and would also provide legal immunity. He also dismissed a report published by the Khartoum based Al Ray Al-Aam which claimed Commins had married one of her kidnappers.

Meanwhile a spokesman for a rebel movement in the Kutum area said their group was not involved in the kidnapping. Ibrahim al-Hillu from the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) faction blamed Arab tribal gunmen “supported by the government”. And al-Hillu may have some justification for his accusation. In March the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Bashir for war crimes in Darfur which triggered a downturn in Sudan's relations with foreign relief organisations. SLA’s leader Abdel Wahid al-Nur says Khartoum’s greatest international misinformation success is that the Darfuri conflict is the notion that it is the result of ethnic or economic rivalries that are too complex and too entrenched to solve.

Irish authorities are becoming aware of the complexities of the region but remain confident of getting a positive outcome. Commins was an experienced campaigner with four years experience with Goal and 18 months in Darfur. Ireland sent two teams to Sudan ahead of Foreign Minister Martin’s visit; one to Khartoum and the other to the Darfuri capital El Fasher. The teams were charged with reporting to Martin on a daily basis, while other staff kept close contact with the Commins family. According to the Irish Times, the women were in good health and have spoken to Sudanese Government officials several times since they were captured.

GOAL director John O'Shea also says his organisation are “working around the clock” to ensure the women’s release. In a press statement on the Goal website last week O’Shea said he was pleased that Ireland had acceded to their request that a senior minister become involved and said the best chance of success lay with “the Irish Government impressing upon their Sudanese counterparts the absolute seriousness of this situation”. He also pleaded with the kidnappers. “Hilda and Sharon have given much to alleviate the suffering of the Sudanese people,” he said. “They want only to be allowed continue their lifesaving work”.

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