Page last updated at 15:41 GMT, Friday, 16 April 2010 16:41 UK

DR Congo rebels release Red Cross workers


Eight Red Cross workers taken hostage in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo last Friday have been freed unharmed.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said they were released unconditionally by the pro-government Mai Mai Yakutumba militia group.

The seven Congolese and one Swiss were abducted in the Fizi region of South Kivu province as they returned from a trip to help displaced people.

The militia group's leader said they had been held "for their own safety".

The self-styled General Aluri Yakutumba told the AFP news agency that there had been fighting in the area last week between his fighters and the Congolese army (FARDC).

But an army spokesman in South Kivu, Capt Olivier Hamuli, told the Associated Press that the group had seized the ICRC workers to thwart an attack on its hideouts.

'Long, hard days'

In a statement, the ICRC confirmed that the hostages had been handed over on Friday to one of its teams, supported by peacekeepers from the UN Mission in DR Congo (Monuc).

"We are relieved and happy to have our eight colleagues back, in good health. Their return marks the end of a series of long, hard days, not only for them but for their families and friends," said Franz Rauchenstein, the head of the ICRC delegation in DR Congo.

ICRC aid trucks in eastern DR Congo (2008)
The ICRC's operation in DR Congo is among its largest in the world

"We would like to express our deep gratitude to all those who have lent us their support over the last few days."

BBC East Africa correspondent Peter Greste says the Mai Mai originally formed as a community self-defence force, loosely linked to the Congolese military.

But they have since morphed into a mosaic of local militias often more concerned with exploiting the region's rich mineral resources than protecting villages, our correspondent adds.

Fighting in eastern DR Congo has eased over the past year, but humanitarian organisations say lawlessness and impunity have increased, making it harder to operate safely.

There has been violent conflict in eastern DR Congo for almost two decades and the ICRC is one of the few aid groups working there.

Six ICRC delegates were murdered in 2002, towards the end of a five-year war which drew in six other countries.

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