Four South African peacekeepers serving with a United Nations (UN) -African Union (AU) mission in the Sudanese region of Darfur were confirmed kidnapped on Wednesday, in the largest single abduction of foreigners in the war-torn region.
The four UNAMID police — two men and two women– were “kidnapped and their car was robbed,” UNAMID spokesperson Nouredine Mezni told Agence-France Presse.
“A crisis group has been set up with the Sudanese authorities to follow the issue,” he added.
UNAMID chief Ibrahim Gambari was “very concerned” by the kidnapping, his spokesperson said.
It is the first time a kidnapping has taken place so close to one of the larger towns that form the capitals of the three states that make up Darfur, and the first time four expatriates have been taken in a single kidnapping.
The incident came as Sudan were holding its first competitive elections in more than two decades and as former South African President Thabo Mbeki — the chief of the AU panel on Darfur– was in el-Fasher in North Darfur.
Election observers from the European Union pulled out of war-torn Darfur, citing insecurity.
Alarm raised on Monday
UNAMID said on Monday that the four had been missing for 24 hours but did not immediately confirm their nationalities.
The alarm was raised on Monday when a colleague living in the same residence as the peacekeepers contacted the mission about their absence.
Staff of international organisations and peacekeepers are subject to a curfew in Darfur.
The peacekeepers’ last movement was reported on April 11 as they left their team site just outside Nyala, UNAMID said on Monday.
“There has been no sighting of our staff and we are deeply concerned for their well-being,” UNAMID chief Ibrahim Gambari said in a statement read to AFP by Mezni on Monday.
Darfur has been gripped by civil war since 2003. Over the past year, the region has seen a wave of kidnappings of humanitarian workers and expatriates in general.
Since it was first deployed in January 2008, UNAMID has also suffered a number of deadly attacks.
Nyala, the second largest city in Sudan, with two million residents, is the centre of operations for several humanitarian agencies based in Darfur.
The semi-desert region of Darfur had seen a lull in the kidnappings of foreigners after a year-long wave of abductions that seemed to have ended with the release in March of Gauthier Lefevre, a staffer with the international Red Cross.
Sudanese authorities had warned that Lefevre’s release did not signal the end of kidnappings in Darfur, carried out by groups of bandits affiliated to Arab tribes who seek ransoms.
Two of the peacekeeping force’s civilian staff were held for 100 days last year after being seized from their residence in Zalingei, West Darfur in August. — Sapa, AFP