KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A wave of kidnappings in Sudan's Darfur region has increased fears for the safety of aid workers running the world's largest humanitarian operation in the western territory.
U.S. Sudan envoy Scott Gration and joint U.N./African Union mediators have said a safe environment for aid workers is crucial to any resolution to the festering Darfur conflict, which has destabilised the whole region.
Here are some questions and answers on the abductions:
Q: What is the latest on the kidnappings?
Kidnappings of aid staff were unheard of in Darfur before armed men seized four workers from the Belgian arm of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in March. They were released three days later. Since then, two other groups of international workers have been taken inside Darfur -- two women from France's Aide Medicale Internationale held for 3-1/2 weeks in April, and two women from Ireland's GOAL, kidnapped in early July and still in captivity.
Another foreign MSF worker is missing after a raid on the group's compound just a few miles over Darfur's border in neighbouring Chad early this month.
Q: Who are the kidnappers?
Khartoum says most of the abductions have been carried out by bandits seeking ransom. Darfur rebels accuse Khartoum of masterminding the crimes as part of a broader campaign of harassment against foreign aid groups. Released aid workers have not made detailed statements about their ordeals.
There is little doubt money plays a part. Banditry is rife in Darfur. The kidnappers of the Aide Medicale Internationale staff told journalists they were making a political protest. But insiders told Reuters the abductors never mentioned anything beyond money during negotiations. U.N. and aid sources feel bandits may have turned to kidnapping as the aid convoys they used to target have become better protected.
Q: What role is Sudan's government playing?
Sudan's Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs says it values the presence of foreign aid groups and it is doing all it can to free abducted workers and secure their premises.
But the actions of Sudan's government have betrayed a deep suspicion of Western humanitarian organisations. It is possible the kidnappers have been encouraged by this.
The first kidnapping came soon after Sudan expelled 13 foreign groups and closed three local organisations in March, accusing them of spying for the International Criminal Court which has issued an arrest a warrant for the country's president over alleged war crimes in Darfur.
State media have published articles accusing international aid groups of squandering funding on their own staff and meddling in politics. Sudan's president announced a plan to "Sudanise" aid work in the country by reducing the role of foreign groups to advisers and trainers of local organisations.
The United Nations says there were just over 700 foreign aid workers in Darfur in January, and at least 200 left after the March expulsions. Aid sources say the number actually working in Darfur at any one time has fallen further and only a small fraction of those venture outside the main cities.
Q: What is the impact on aid work?
Humanitarian staff feel increasingly under siege. Three years ago, most lived with the risk of being car-jacked or briefly detained outside remote bases. Today, violent car-jackings have become common inside Darfur's three main urban centres. Last month an aid worker was injured when attackers opened fire inside his group's compound in the capital of west Darfur, El Geneina.
The number of international aid workers working in remote areas outside Darfur's three main cities plummeted after the March expulsions and has stayed low. Many foreign groups are resorting to managing their projects remotely, sometimes contracting local organisations to carry out projects. This cuts down on their ability to monitor work and pushes more vulnerable local staff into the front line. Staff say they have faced verbal threats and harassment since the ICC warrant. Recruitment has become harder, morale has fallen and institutional memory has drained away as staff leave.
Q: What is the impact on Darfuris?
Any acceleration in attacks on aid workers could have a devastating impact on millions of Darfuris, many of them displaced by more than six years of fighting.
Aid groups say they are just managing to maintain their services in the current situation. But there is little room for manoeuvre, amid the gaps left by the expelled organisations and the current "hunger season" as people await the next harvest.
Q: Will aid groups pull out?
Aide Medicale Internationale shut down its Darfur operation after the kidnappings. Many other groups are reportedly in discussions with headquarters about what would have to happen for them to leave. So far few have shut up shop voluntarily. That may change if kidnappings turn into killings. But even then, some groups may decide the risk is worth taking. "You will always be able to find people willing to live on the extreme edge of things," said one aid worker.