Russian air crew freed in Darfur

2010-08-31 12:22

Khartoum - Three Russian helicopter crew members have been freed a day after they were abducted in Sudan's war-torn western region of Darfur, a Sudanese army spokesperson said on Tuesday.

"The three Russian pilots were freed last night (Monday)," following negotiations with the abductors, army spokesperson Sawarmi Khaled Saad said.

But state media said the trio was freed after clashes between security forces and the abductors.

"The specialised services in the South Darfur state succeeded in liberating the three Russian pilots who were abducted two days ago in Nyala after clashes with the abductors," the Sudanese Media Centre (SMC) reported.

SMC, which is close to Sudan's intelligence services, suggested there were casualties in the clashes saying "the toll (from the fighting) has not yet been announced".

The Russians, who worked for private aviation company Badr, were abducted on Sunday by gunmen in Nyala, capital of South Darfur.

The Kremlin special envoy on Sudan, Mikhail Margelov, was quoted by the Interfax news agency as identifying the three as the captain of a Mi-8 helicopter and two crew members.

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

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.

Safe and free

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 23 foreigners seized.

With the release of the Russians, no foreigners remain in captivity.

On Monday, a US aid worker who had been held for more than 100 days was finally released by her abductors after negotiations with the authorities, Sudan foreign ministry spokesperson Moawiya Osman said, stressing however that no ransom had been paid.

Flavia Wagner, 35, who works for US aid group Samaritan's Purse was released after a 105-day ordeal, officials said.

Colleagues had seen her "and report that she is well. She said she is looking forward to being reunited with her family in the United States," Samaritan's Purse said in a statement on Monday.

"We thank God that Flavia is safe and free," said Franklin Graham, president of the American aid group. "We appreciate the help of the government of Sudan and the United States government."

Wagner - who was seized on May 18 along with two Sudanese colleagues who were freed within days - was the first Western woman to have been held alone in Darfur.

All foreigners kidnapped since March 2009 have since been freed unharmed.

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. He was freed four days later.