Kidnapped US aid worker freed in Darfur, Russians abducted

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A female American aid worker abducted by gunmen in the Sudanese region of Darfur more than 100 days ago was freed Monday, an official said, while at least two Russians were reported kidnapped.

The woman, who works for US aid group Samaritan's Purse, was kidnapped in mid-May in the village of Abu Ajura, South Darfur, along with two Sudanese colleagues who were later released.

"She was freed a short while ago and is now at the home of the governor of South Darfur, (Abdel Hamid Kasha) in Nyala," Sudan foreign ministry spokesman Moawiya Osman told AFP.

News of the woman's release came just hours after Sudan's army spokesman Sawarmi Khaled Saad reported that two Russian helicopter crew members were abducted by gunmen in Nyala, capital of South Darfur state, on Sunday.

Russia's Interfax news agency however said that in fact three Russians -- the captain of a Mi-8 helicopter and two crew members -- were abducted.

Strife-torn Darfur has seen a wave of kidnappings since March 2009, when the International Criminal Court indicted Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes there, with 21 foreigners seized, including the two Russians.

With the release of the American aid worker, only the newly-seized Russians remain in captivity.

In July, the American woman worker, reached by satellite telephone, told AFP that her situation had turned into a "nightmare."

"In the past it was okay, but now it is not. They are threatening me, my life, my health," said the woman.

"I am not safe now. I don't have clean water, the situation changed very quickly into a nightmare. There are 20 men around me now," she said.

"I want to go home, I just hope they will release me."

The woman's identity was confirmed to AFP by Samaritan's Purse, but the aid group had requested that her name not be published.

It is the first time a Western woman has been held alone in Darfur.

Her abductors had asked for a large sum of money in exchange for her release.

South Darfur governor Kasha said no further details were available regarding the abduction of the Russians.

"For the moment we don't have any information, either on the kidnappers or the kidnapped."

According to foreign ministry spokesman Saad, the two crewmen were seized in Nyala on Sunday around 4:00 pm (1300 GMT).

"Two Russian pilots were kidnapped by a small armed group in a section of Nyala," Saad said. "We have closed off all access routes (around Nyala)."

The pilots were working for the private aviation company Badr, Saad told the official SUNA news agency.

The Kremlin special envoy on Sudan, Mikhail Margelov, was quoted by Russia's Interfax news agency Monday as saying that in fact three Russians -- the captain of a Mi-8 helicopter and two crew members -- were abducted.

"The helicopter was carrying food and other civilian supplies for the United Nations mission to Darfur," Margelov was quoted as saying.

"We are in constant contact with the Sudanese authorities about the situation."

Darfur has been gripped by 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 capture of the Russians marks the second abduction of foreigners in Darfur this month, and the latest in a string of kidnappings in Nyala.

On August 14, two Jordanian police advisers deployed with the joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) were kidnapped at gunpoint but released a few days later.

The pair were in a UN car along with two other Jordanian officers in Nyala when three gunmen ambushed them, forcing the other two passengers out of the vehicle.

Shortly afterwards, UNAMID announced that it had begun digging a "security trench" around Nyala, in cooperation with local authorities, in a bid to fend off more abductions.

The two-metre-deep (seven feet) trench, spanning about 40 kilometres (25 miles), is designed "to reduce the high incidence of criminality by regulating travel to and from the town," UNAMID said, and was due for completion within four to five weeks.

In July, a 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, the Russian foreign ministry.

He was freed four days later.

© 2010 AFP

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