African Union hostages freed by Darfur rebels

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Forces from the Sudanese rebel group, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), have assisted in liberating 38 African Union (AU) personnel that were taken hostage on Sunday. The kidnapped–which consisted of the original 18 hostages, and later a 20 man rescue team–were released on Monday. Initially, two hostages remained but were freed following a reported shootout with the kidnappers.

A splinter group of JEM was blamed for the attack, but Mohamed Saleh, the head of the dissident faction, has denied the allegations.

Saleh was the military head of JEM when it signed a ceasefire agreement in April, but later split with the group's leadership. It is said that he now commands "thousands" of troops in the Darfur region, and is looking for a seat at the ongoing peace talks. He accused the AU of taking sides, and stated that he will not honour the ceasefire.

While speaking with Reuters, Saleh said, "We want the AU to leave, and we have warned them not to travel to our areas. We don't know and don't care what is happening to the AU, they are part of the conflict now."

Violence in the region has continued to rise. According to BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher, hostilities toward AU peacekeepers are becoming more common. It has been noted that aid agencies are refusing to travel with African Union personnel, stating that the mere presence of the peacekeepers may draw fire.

Kofi Annan, at a press conference in Geneva, responded to the rising violence by suggesting aid to the region may be partially suspended. "Both rebels and government must understand that, if these incidents continue, it will impede humanitarian assistance and delivery."

This weekend marked the first time the African Union has suffered casualties in the region. Three personnel were killed in attacks believed to be perpetrated by the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA). Despite the violence, the SLA, JEM, and the AU have promised to continue the peace talks which are being held in Abuja.