KHARTOUM Armed men seized two female aid workers, one Irish and one Ugandan, in Sudan's Darfur region on Friday, their employer said, the third kidnapping of foreign aid staff in the territory in four months.
The six men took the women, both working for the Irish aid group GOAL, from their compound in the north Darfur town of Kutum in the evening, the aid group told Reuters. A Sudanese guard was also taken but later released, it added.
The recent surge of kidnappings has shocked humanitarian groups in Darfur, where abductions of foreign workers were almost unheard of before this year.
Aid organisations say they have faced growing antagonism in Darfur since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's president in March to face charges of orchestrating crimes against humanity in the region.
GOAL chief executive John O'Shea named the kidnapped women as Hilda Kawuki, 42, from Uganda, and Sharon Commins, 32, from Dublin.
"We don't know who took them. There are so many splinter groups in the area you'd only be guessing," O'Shea told Reuters. "The local police force are in charge of trying to track them down. We have never had a kidnapping before. We are just hoping and praying that we can get them back."
The tactics used by the men, targeting a foreign aid compound after dark, kidnapping a guard and then releasing him, were similar to those used in earlier abductions in Darfur, said a U.N. source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A Canadian and a French woman from France-based Aide Medicale Internationale were kidnapped at gunpoint in Ed el Fursan in South Darfur in early April, but were later released unharmed.
The kidnappers, who called themselves the Freedom Eagles of Africa, had been demanding that Paris retry members of Zoe's Ark, a French humanitarian group, convicted but later pardoned over the abduction of children from Chad.
Three foreign workers for Medecins Sans Frontieres, kidnapped in March in Saraf Omra in north Darfur, were taken by a group called the Eagles of Bashir protesting at the International Criminal Court's warrant against Sudan's president Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Those workers were also released.
Sudan expelled 13 foreign aid groups in March, accusing them of helping the global court BUILD up its case against the president.
Before the expulsions, U.N. agencies and aid groups were running the world's largest humanitarian operation in Darfur, the scene of more than six years of conflict.
Fighting surged when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Sudan's government in 2003, accusing it of neglecting the region. Khartoum mobilised troops and mostly Arab militias to crush the rebellion.
Estimates of the resulting death toll range from 10,000 according to Khartoum to 300,000 according to United Nations humanitarian chief John Holmes.
GOAL's country director in Sudan Flora Hillis said the Kutum team had been providing health services, nutrition, water and sanitation to around 150,000 people in the area.
(Additional reporting by Carmel Crimmins in Dublin)