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Three Bulgarian helicopter crew abducted in Darfur

January 13, 2011 (NAIROBI) – Three Bulgarian nationals operating a helicopter contracted by the UN’s food aid arm World Food Program (WFP) in Sudan’s western region of Darfur have been taken hostage by unknown gunmen, in the latest episode of a long-running series of kidnappings of foreigners in the volatile region.

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The UN-AU Hybrid Peacekeeping Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) on Thursday said that the three Bulgarians were snatched as their helicopter landed at approximately 10:35hrs in an air strip in Um Shalaya, located 60 kilometers southeast of El Geneina, the provincial capital of West Darfur State.

The mission added that no further details were available.

Meanwhile in Khartoum, Sudan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has deplored the incident and said it was doing everything in its power to secure release of the hostages. The ministry’s official spokesman Khalid Musa said in a statement reported by the country’s official news agency SUNA that government forces had been deployed in the areas where the hostages could be held.

The latest incident of kidnapping in Darfur involved a Hungarian staffer of UNAMID, Istvan Papp, who was abducted by gunmen in north Darfur’s provincial capital Al-Fashir, only hours after a delegation of the UN Security Council arrived in the town. Just like most kidnappings in Darfur, he was released unharmed on January 5.

A similar incident occurred in early November when unknown gunmen kidnapped three Latvian crewmen of a helicopter contracted by WFP in south Darfur’s capital provincial Nyala. They were released on December 8.

Twenty-two foreigners have been kidnapped in Darfur since March 2008 when the International Criminal Court (ICC) charged Sudan President Omar Al-Bashir with war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the course of the eight-year conflict in Darfur.

All hostages were eventually freed but it is unclear whether ransoms have been paid.

Many international NGOs have had to suspend their operations in the region after their staffers suffered kidnapping incidents.

There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that Arab tribal militias allied with the Sudanese government may have something to do with the kidnappings as most incidents took place in areas controlled by these militias.

Darfur conflict broke out in 2003 when rebels belonging mostly to African ethnic groups took up arms against the central government in Khartoum, accusing it of marginalizing the region in terms of development and wealth-sharing.

An abusive counterinsurgency carried out by government forces and allied Arab militias has killed around 300,000 and left 2.7 million displaced, as claimed by the UN. However, Khartoum disputes the UN figures and puts the death toll at 10,000.