Kidnapped Darfur Aid Workers Freed, Says Italy

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KHARTOUM, Sudan — The Italian foreign ministry said Friday that three foreign aid workers being held hostage in Darfur had been released but representatives for their aid organization could not confirm that they had been freed.

Representatives for Doctors Without Borders where the hostages worked said they have not been in touch with them since reports surfaced of their release late Friday.

Conflicting reports about the fate of the hostages added to the mystery of the kidnapping, which has raised fears about a backlash against foreigners in Darfur following an arrest warrant issued against the country's president for war crimes there.

There were also reports that a Sudanese guard initially abducted with the group and then thought to have been released was instead still with the three foreign aid workers.

The group _ a Canadian nurse, Italian doctor and French coordinator _ was kidnapped from the volatile Darfur region Wednesday when armed gunmen broke into their compound. Negotiations for their release have been ongoing.

Then the Italian foreign ministry Friday said the three foreign workers had been freed. In a statement later, both the Italian foreign minister and the Italian president expressed their satisfaction over the hostages' release.

In Sudan, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, Ali Youssef, said the details for the release of the aid workers was being finalized, but could provide no further details.

A Sudanese government official, who was closely following the case, also said Friday that the group was heading to the governor's house in El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur, and that no ransom had been paid for their release. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He later said an official announcement would be made when they are finally free and refused to discuss any details.

But officials from Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medicins Sans Frontieres or MSF, said they could not confirm the hostages' release.

An official from the Brussels branch of the organization Erwin Van't Land said the group had been told by the kidnappers and by the Sudanese authorities they had been released.

"But we have not been able to talk to them ourselves. We need our own independent confirmation," he said. The aid workers were affiliated with the Brussels branch of the organization.

Officials from both MSF in France and Italy also could not confirm the hostages' release, nor could Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs.

Reports Wednesday said gunmen had initially taken five hostages _ the three foreign aid workers and two Sudanese guards _ and then released the two Sudanese guards. However, MSF spokeswoman Susan Sandars, speaking from Nairobi, said Sudanese authorities Friday said only one Sudanese guard had been released.

The Italian foreign ministry said it did not immediately have details on where the hostages were at the moment they gained their freedom.

Earlier Friday, the Italian ministry asked for a news blackout on the kidnapping while officials worked for the hostages' freedom.

The abduction came a week after the Sudanese government expelled 13 foreign aid groups from Darfur.

The expulsion order came in response to an international arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 6-year-old war in the region.

The court has accused al-Bashir of orchestrating atrocities against civilians in Darfur, where his Arab-led government has been battling ethnic African rebels since 2003. Up to 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million have been driven from their homes. Sudan denies the charges and says the figures are exaggerated.

It is not known whether the kidnapping was related to the ICC warrant. Sudanese officials have said the tribunal's decision has encouraged lawlessness. The area where the kidnapping occurred is government controlled, and pro-government Arab militias live and are based nearby.

The expulsion order included some MSF branches but the Belgium, Spain and Switzerland branches were allowed to stay. Following the kidnapping, those three groups pulled 35 of their international staff out of Darfur, temporarily halting the groups' operations.

Only two staff remained to negotiate the hostages' release.

The kidnappings took place in a rural area known as Saraf Umra about 125 miles west of the city of El Fasher, according to a spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur.

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Associated Press Writers Elaine Ganley in Paris, Frances D'Emilio in Rome and Robert Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.