Efforts intensify to free kidnapped aid workers

EFFORTS to free kidnapped aid worker Sharon Commins intensified last night amid growing uncertainty about those responsible for the abduction.

The 32-year-old GOAL worker was kidnapped along with two others on Friday at the GOAL compound in Kutum in the stricken Darfur region of Sudan. A Sudanese watchman was later released.

The Department of Foreign Affairs confirmed yesterday that Irish officials sent to Sudan in an attempt to secure Ms Commins’ release had landed safely in the capital city, Khartoum.

That deployment, which travelled on a government jet, includes senior officials from the department, as well as the Irish ambassador in Cairo, Gerry Corr.

Mr Corr was quoted yesterday as saying the identity of those responsible for the abductions had yet to be clarified and the situation was “extremely sensitive”.

They are to travel to the Al-Fashir region today and will meet with local officials in a bid to uncover exactly who abducted Ms Commins and her GOAL colleague, 40-year-old Ugandan Hilda Kuwuki.

Sharon’s worried parents, Mark and Agatha, have pleaded for her release.

“I just want her to be released by whoever is holding her,” Agatha Commins said.

“Sharon has always loved her work and I thought she would be safe in Darfur because [she] was working for Goal. I’ve always been tormenting God praying that she’ll be safe. But I was not worrying constantly.”

Mark Commins said: “If people are doing half of what they say they are trying to, it should all turn out OK.”

Ms Commins had been working in the central African country for more than a year, having previously worked in the GOAL offices in Dún Laoghaire.

GOAL chief executive John O’Shea yesterday said there had been no further developments on the ground since the abduction on Friday.

Staff who witnessed the abduction of Ms Commins and Ms Kuwuki, carried out by six armed men, are being interviewed.

He told RTÉ’s This Week programme that the men also took mobile phones and a computer, which opens the way for the kidnappers to contact GOAL.

“If we cannot find them we want them to be able to find us,” he said.

Mr O’Shea said it was difficult to know how those behind the abductions would behave, given the volatility in the region.

He said staff had been given training about dealing with hostile situations, but that no one could be prepared for men storming a compound.

No ransom demands have been received, and Mr O’Shea said: “We do not have any policy [regarding ransom payments].

“The only policy I have as a human being is that there is nothing more important than human life.”

He added later that the priority was to have all those abducted returned to their families as quickly as possible and that he hoped to have more positive news today.

The kidnapping of the aid workers is the third to take place since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir earlier this year, but in each case those abducted were eventually released unharmed.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Irish Defence Forces downplayed media reports that Irish troops in central Africa were involved in the search for Ms Commins.

Comdt Gavin Young said the 100th Infantry Battalion were serving in Chad and were some distance away from where Ms Commins was kidnapped.

Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs Dr Michael Woods said he was “alarmed” at the abduction of the GOAL staff and said the issue would be raised directly with Sudanese Ambassador to Ireland and the United Kingdom, Omer Siddigi, when he appears before the Committee this Wednesday.

“The Committee is extremely alarmed by this sinister development and calls for the release of Ms Commins immediately,” Dr Woods said.

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