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Armed Men Abduct Aid Workers In Darfur

Armed men abducted three international aid workers and two Sudanese guards in Darfur, a week after the government in Khartoum ordered aid groups expelled in response to an international arrest warrant for the Sudanese president, officials said Thursday.

The kidnappings - believed to be the first of Westerners in Darfur - took place late Wednesday in a rural area known as Saraf Umra about 125 miles west of the city of El Fasher, said Noureddine Mezni, a spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers in Khartoum.

The area is government controlled, and pro-government Arab militias known as janjaweed live and are based nearby.

The attackers stormed into the compound of the Belgian branch of the aid group Doctors Without Borders in the evening and abducted the staffers, said Susan Sandars, a Nairobi, Kenya-based spokeswoman for the group, which is also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF.

The two Sudanese guards were later released, but a Canadian nurse, an Italian doctor and a French coordinator were still being held, she said, adding there was no information on the motive or the whereabouts of the kidnapped. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the abduction.

The kidnappings come after Sudan expelled the 13 biggest aid groups from Darfur in response to the March 4 arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 6-year-old war in the region.

Many fear the warrant would make the foreign community in Sudan a target for anger and revenge attacks.

The French and Dutch branches of MSF were among the 13 groups expelled from Darfur. Its Belgian, Swiss and Spanish branches, however, were allowed to remain, along with dozens of other smaller aid organization. MSF, which has five branches, had an extensive medical operation in Darfur and was often the only health provider in violence-stricken or rebel held areas.

Later Thursday, Christopher Stokes, director of MSF Belgium, said in Brussels that MSF decided to pull all its remaining staff from Darfur to Khartoum as a safety precaution until those abducted are freed.

"We are trying to negotiate for the moment the release of our colleagues," Stokes said. "The only people that will stay behind are the people dealing with trying to secure the freedom of our colleagues. The remaining ... MSF Belgium, Switzerland and Spain ... also decided to withdraw their teams."

The 13 expelled aid groups have all pulled out of the large western region of Sudan, although some stayed on in Khartoum. They represented about 40 percent of the humanitarian personnel in Darfur.

Authorities claimed the groups were cooperating with the ICC tribunal. Sudanese officials have warned that vigilantes could target foreigners, though they promised to try to protect them.

Hassabo Abdel-Rahman, of the government humanitarian affairs office said the three abducted workers were able to call their MSF colleagues after the kidnapping to assure they were in good health.

He said the two Sudanese guards who were released have been questioned by police but could not identify their kidnappers. "It's an isolated and immoral act," Abdel-Rahman said, claiming an unknown group was behind the abduction.

The ICC warrant accuses al-Bashir of orchestrating atrocities against civilians in Darfur, where his Arab-led government has been battling ethnic African rebels since 2003. Up to 300,000 people have been killed, and 2.7 million have been driven from their homes.

Most of those who have fled the fighting rely on U.N. agencies and international aid groups for their survival and the expulsion of the aid groups also raises fears of a humanitarian disaster.

MSF Belgium said on its Web site that the families of the kidnapped have been informed. "Doctors Without Borders is seriously concerned over their safety and is doing all that is possible to secure their safe release," it said.

Sergio Cecchini of MSF in Rome said the group was not aware of any ransom requests and said he had no information of who was behind the kidnapping.

Aid workers or convoys are frequently attacked in Darfur by armed bandits from any of the multiple armed forces fighting in Darfur. Usually, aid workers are let go after their equipment is stolen, but some have been killed.

In February, two Sudanese working for the French Aide Medicale Internationale were killed by bandits. In 2006, a Sudanese working for Oxfam was kidnapped in the same area where the Wednesday kidnapping took place, and remained missing for at least 2 months, forcing Oxfam to shut down its offices there. The Sudanese was killed shortly after his release, when he got caught up in fighting while trying to get back to Saraf Umra.

The increased banditry has forced many aid workers to travel only by helicopters to avoid high-risk roads.

Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman Ali Youssef said Sudan condemned the abductions.

"We are following this, we don't have clues," he said, dismissing the possibility that the aid workers were detained by authorities. "Why should we detain them? If the government of Sudan was responsible ... we would say so, say that they are under investigation."

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini requested the cooperation of Sudanese authorities and stressed in a statement that hostage safety must be the absolute priority and that "therefore no action must be put in place that might compromise that."

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