Russian air crew kidnapped in Darfur freed
Three Russian helicopter crewmen kidnapped in Sudan's restive Darfur region have been freed, officials said on Tuesday, with one report indicating force was used to secure their release.
Sudanese army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad and the Kremlin's special envoy to Khartoum, Mikhail Margelov, said the men were released after intensive negotiations with the abductors but did not specify if a ransom was paid.
"The three Russian pilots were freed last night (Monday)," following negotiations with the abductors, the army spokesman said.
Russian envoy Margelov, quoted by Russia's Interfax news agency, said "the negotiations lasted several hours and were crowned with success. The group that was holding our pilots released them."
Abdel Hamid Kasha, the governor of South Darfur state, where the men were abducted on Sunday at gunpoint, said no ransom was paid.
The Khartoum government had resolved to "deal forcefully with kidnappers without reacting to provocation, and we have pledged never to pay a penny for hostages," he told reporters.
Kasha earlier told a Sudanese media website that the hostages were freed by force.
"Border guards freed the Russians after clashes with the kidnappers," the governor told the Sudanese Media Centre, which is close to Sudan's intelligence services.
The news outlet had earlier said "specialised services" fought with the abductors. "The toll (from the fighting) has not yet been announced," the report said.
There was no confirmation from the Khartoum authorities as to whether force had been used.
A diplomat at the Russian consulate in Khartoum, Evgeni Arjantsev, said the three Russians on Tuesday were back in Nyala, capital of South Darfur state, from where they were seized by a small group of armed men two days earlier.
Margelov has identified the men as an Mi-8 helicopter pilot and two crew members working for a private aviation firm. "The helicopter was carrying food and other civilian supplies for the United Nations mission to Darfur," he said.
Darfur has been gripped by a civil war since 2003 that has left 300,000 people dead and 2.7 million displaced, according to the United Nations. Khartoum says 10,000 have been killed in the conflict.
The strife-torn region of western Sudan has seen a wave of kidnappings since March 2009, when the International Criminal Court indicted President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur, with 23 foreigners seized.
With the release of the Russians, no foreigners remain in captivity.
On Monday, a US aid worker held for more than 100 days was finally released by her abductors after negotiations with the authorities, foreign ministry spokesman Moawiya Osman said, stressing no ransom was paid.
Flavia Wagner, 35, who works for US aid group Samaritan's Purse was released after a 105-day ordeal.
Colleagues had seen her "and report that she is well. She said she is looking forward to being reunited with her family in the United States," Samaritan's Purse said on Monday.
Wagner -- who was seized on May 18 along with two Sudanese colleagues who were freed within days -- was the first Western woman to have been held alone in Darfur.
All foreigners kidnapped since March 2009 have since been freed unharmed.
In July, another Russian helicopter pilot was taken prisoner after landing in South Darfur to pick up a group of rebels and transport them to Chad for peace talks. He was freed four days later.
© 2010 AFP