April 5, 2009 / 1:45 PM / 10 years ago

Two members of French aid group kidnapped in Sudan

(Adds background, details, U.N. source)

By James Mackenzie and Andrew Heavens

PARIS/KHARTOUM, April 5 (Reuters) - Two expatriate staff members of Aide Medicale Internationale were kidnapped at gunpoint in southern Darfur overnight, the French medical aid group said on Sunday.

A U.N. source in Khartoum said unidentified men seized the two international staff and two Sudanese guards from their compound in Ed el Fursan just before midnight on Saturday night. The two guards were later released, the source said.

Sudanese police surrounded AMI’s compound on Sunday morning after the kidnapping was discovered.

The French foreign ministry said its crisis centre in Paris had been activated and the French embassy in Khartoum was in touch with the organisation and with local authorities.

Land around Ed el Fursan, about 90 km (55 miles) south west of the South Darfur capital Nyala, has in recent weeks been the scene in an upsurge of fighting between members of the rival Habbaniya and Fallata tribes.

The clashes, rooted in long-standing disputes over land and other traditional rights, have escalated because of the supply of arms that has flooded the area during the six-year Darfur conflict.

Officials for Darfur’s joint U.N./African Union UNAMID peacekeeping force said they could not comment on the case while investigations were going on.

Aide Medicale Internationale said it had been operating in Darfur since 2004 in Khor Abache and Ed el Fursan, with a coordination centre in Nyala, supporting clinics and health centres in rural areas.

A spokesman for a faction of Darfur’s rebel Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) denied his men, or any other insurgent force, was behind the kidnapping.

"It can only be government militias. They expelled 13 foreign aid groups last month. This is part of the same plan, to empty Darfur of all international organisations," said Ibrahim al-Helwu, from the faction controlled by Abdel Wahed Mohamed Ahmed al-Nur.

Sudan expelled 13 international aid groups from the north of the country in March accusing them of helping the International Criminal Court build up a war crimes case against Sudan’s president, an accusation the groups deny.

Sudanese government officials said three foreign workers for Medecins Sans Frontieres kidnapped in March in north Darfur were taken by a group protesting over the ICC’s move against Sudanese president Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Aid groups have said they have faced growing antagonism in Darfur since the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Bashir.

Aid officials said they were worried that the kidnaps might mark the start of a new trend.

"We have had practically everything else - robberies, car-jackings, attacks," said one official. "But the kidnapping of international staff has never been an issue before. (Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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