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Abducted WFP staff released by rebels in Darfur

ROME - The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) today announced the safe release of three of its employees who had been held captive by rebels in the troubled Darfur region of Sudan. While welcoming their release, WFP condemned the fact that humanitarian workers were being targeted by armed groups.

The three WFP staff, as well as three members of the Sudanese Red Crescent, disappeared in North Darfur on Saturday afternoon, while they were on a mission to register displaced people. Their release was secured on Wednesday, following negotiations by a UN security team with rebels from the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) who had abducted them.

The search and rescue operation was aided by the tracking of a Thuraya satellite telephone belonging to the WFP team, as well as the HF radio affixed to the WFP vehicle they were driving at the time of their abduction. Upon their release, all six people were flown by helicopter to El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur.

"We are delighted that our people, as well as those working for the Sudanese Red Crescent, have been freed unharmed," said WFP Senior Deputy Executive Director, Jean-Jacques Graisse. "Their disappearance was a matter of enormous concern to us and we were very relieved to hear of their release."

"This is not, however, the first time that humanitarian workers have been targeted in Darfur. At a time when all agencies are battling the rainy season, poor infrastructure and an unpredictable security environment to deliver desperately needed humanitarian assistance, this kind of incident can only further worsen the plight of the needy in Darfur," Graisse added.

"We call upon all armed groups in the region to stop targeting those involved in humanitarian work and allow them to do their duty without fear of intimidation. Any continuation or escalation of incidents such as the one just resolved is likely to have far-reaching consequences for the relief operation," Graisse said.

In June this year a large group of aid workers from several United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations was held against their will, also by the SLA in North Darfur. Yesterday, 22 Sudanese health workers were detained near Nyala for several hours by rebels from the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

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