Freed Oxfam worker says did not see daylight for days

16th June 2010, Comments 0 comments

A dual-national Swiss and British Oxfam aid worker arrived in the Chad capital Wednesday after being freed from nine days of captivity by kidnappers he said kept him in a small room in the dark.

Looking drawn and tired, 57-year-old Hubert Ballaman arrived in N'djamena on a plane chartered by the Chad government a day after he was freed by soldiers who stormed the kidnappers' village hideout near the border with Sudan.

Ballaman was captured on June 6 in Abeche, the main city in volatile eastern Chad where several aid groups and UN agencies work with hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees from the brutal conflict in Darfur.

"I was locked up all day in a small room and they let me out at night," Ballaman told AFP.

"I have not seen daylight for eight days. I had no outside contact. When I asked to contact Oxfam, they stopped me," he said.

Ballaman, who had an emotional reunion with his wife on the plane from Abeche, said he did not know who had seized him. Authorities said they had arrested two of the kidnappers but did not day who they were.

"I was not hurt, I was well treated. I am relieved but very tired," he said.

The aid worker said he was captured as he left a restaurant with a Congolese colleague and their Chadian driver.

About 150 metres (yards) from the restaurant, "men in vehicles forced us to get into their car and we were taken towards the eastern exit of Abeche. After several kilometres, they freed my colleague and the driver," he said.

"We drove for two days before arriving at their hideout, a small village close to Birack," he said.

"They put a hood on me and dark glasses, telling me not to look and not to ask questions.

"I was not physically assaulted but I suffered in the first two days because I drank water from a jerrycan which smelt of oil," Ballaman said.

"They took everything I had on me: money, telephone, radio. All that I had, they took."

The Chad army said the aid worker was found near the town of Guereda, about 160 kilometres (99 miles) from Abeche and close to the Sudanese border, and freed by a mixed Chad and Sudanese force.

"After a week of searching, we identified the crooks' hideout about 50 kilometres from Guereda," General Ousmane Barh Mahamat Itno, who headed the operation, told AFP.

"We deployed forces to circle the area before launching an assault. We were able to free the hostage and arrest two kidnappers. The others fled and we are on their trail," he said.

The British charity hailed the help of the Chad government, which had announced Ballaman's release on Tuesday.

"Oxfam would like to thank all parties involved, especially the government of Chad, and members of the international community for their efforts to achieve the safe release of our colleague," its British arm said.

Abeche is a key garrison town for the Chadian military and police. It also hosts a French military base and a camp for the UN peacekeeping force in the Central African Republic and Chad (MINURCAT).

MINURCAT will leave Chad this year, with most of the 3,300 troops expected out by October. Chadian authorities claim that the pullout will not affect security but Amnesty International and others disagree.

Oxfam says ongoing violence in Darfur has forced nearly a quarter of a million refugees over the border into Chad while instability caused by rebel groups inside Chad has caused mass displacement

Eastern Chad, Darfur in western Sudan and the northern Central African Republic have all been rife with kidnappings of humanitarian workers for more than a year, but in eastern Chad hostages were generally freed.

Aid workers have long complained of widespread insecurity and Oxfam said in March last year there were 25 attacks on NGOs in the area every month.

© 2010 AFP

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