Government denies ransom paid to free two aid workers


The Department of Foreign Affairs has denied allegations that €150,000 was paid to the kidnappers of two aid workers.

The Arab tribal leader in Darfur who played a key role in securing the release of Goal aid worker Sharon Commins and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kawuki has claimed that their kidnappers were paid a ransom by the Sudanese authorities.

Musa Hilal, who was last year appointed as a special adviser to Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, told The Irish Timesthat, contrary to the public assertions of the Sudanese, Irish and Ugandan authorities, the kidnappers had received the equivalent of €150,000.

The two Goal aid workers were abducted at gunpoint after armed men stormed their compound in the north Darfur town of Kutum more than three months ago.

They were freed unharmed in the early hours of last Sunday morning.

Mr Hilal said that the abduction had dragged on for so long because agreement could not be reached on the ransom. When the Sudanese government initially said they would not allow the payment of a ransom, the kidnappers threatened to take the women to neighbouring Chad.

Mr Hilal claimed that he, working through mediators, had persuaded the gang to drop the Chad plan.

“This is the truth. Had I not intervened through these mediators, this situation wouldn’t have been sorted out like this. These guys would not have killed the girls but they would have taken them to Chad or any other place,” he said.

Mr Hilal said that, in the days before last weekend’s release, he had convinced the kidnappers to accept the original ransom they had demanded and release the two women. “I just [convinced] the kidnappers back to the sum and the [Sudanese] government paid that amount,” he said.

When it was put to him that Sudan’s minister for humanitarian affairs Abdul Bagi al-Jailani had stressed numerous times since the women were freed that no ransom had been paid, Mr Hilal replied: “This is just politicians’ talk . . . The amount of money I just talked about now is something the government doesn’t want to talk about.”

The Department of Foreign Affairs today said it had not paid any ransom to secure the release of the two aid workers.

In a statement issued this afternoon, Goal's chief executive of Goal John O'Shea also denied having paid any ransom.

In her first interview just hours after she was released last Sunday, Ms Commins told The Irish Timesthe kidnappers’ only motive was money.

“They had no political agenda,” she said. “It was purely about money, that’s all they wanted and that’s all they cared about. They would talk about nothing but money. They were extremely poor people trying to make a quick buck.”

This week, Mr Jailani, whom Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has described as the Irish Government’s main point of contact in the case, told The Irish Timesthat president al-Bashir had personally asked Mr Hilal to assist in securing the release of the two women. “Musa Hilal is a very influential figure here,” Mr Jailani said. “He was told: ‘You know this area inside and out and you have to concentrate right now on releasing these women’.”

Mr Hilal said he had also helped arrange the phone call that took place between Ms Commins and her mother last month. Numerous victims and witnesses to the conflict in Darfur have identified Mr Hilal as the main commander of the Janjaweed, a word used to describe the government-backed militias that carried out attacks in which civilians were massacred and raped while their villages were razed.

In 2004, the US state department named him as one of six militia leaders alleged to be responsible for serious crimes in the region. Two years later the UN imposed sanctions on Mr Hilal and three others.

On Thursday the International Committee of the Red Cross announced that one of its employees, French national Gauthier Lefevre, had been abducted near the town of El Geneina in west Darfur.

A French aid worker kidnapped two days ago in the Darfur region is in good health and no ransom has been demanded, the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) said today.

The kidnapping of Gauthier Lefevre was the latest in a wave of abductions of foreign workers in Darfur since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir in March.

"The captors confirmed that Gauthier was okay but we were not able to talk to him," ICRC spokeswoman Tamara al-Rifai said.

Two UN-African Union peacekeepers taken almost two months ago and remain in captivity.
None of the kidnappers has been apprehended. Mr Jailani said he was optimistic Mr Lefevre would be released soon.

Additional reporting: Reuters