Page last updated at 07:13 GMT, Saturday, 14 March 2009

Darfur aid hostages 'not freed'

Canadian nurse Laura Archer  one of three MSF employees abducted in Darfur  pictured in Montreal in August 2008
Canadian nurse Laura Archer was among those kidnapped

Three aid workers held hostage in the troubled Sudanese region of Darfur for the past two days will shortly be freed, officials in Khartoum say.

Earlier Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said their three staff, abducted on Wednesday, had already been released.

But it later emerged the trio, a French administrator, a Canadian nurse and an Italian doctor, were still being held.

On Thursday, MSF moved its humanitarian teams out of Darfur, to the capital of Sudan, Khartoum.

"They are still not released," Ali Youssef Ahmed, head of protocol at Sudan's foreign ministry told Reuters news agency.

"The government is making its utmost efforts and is coordinating with the concerned authorities," Mr Ahmed said.

"I can assure you that they are well, everybody is safe and sound. We're expecting their release in the next few hours."

Sudan expelled more than a dozen aid groups after an international indictment was issued this month against President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

Khartoum has accused the groups of spying - a charge they strongly deny.

But the Sudanese authorities say the gang responsible for these abductions are bandits seeking a cash ransom.

The three have been named as Laura Archer, Mauro D'Ascanio and Raphael Meonier.

They were taken at gunpoint on Wednesday evening from their office at Saraf Umra, an area under government control some 230km (143 miles) west of El Fasher.

Two Sudanese employees of MSF who were also abducted were later freed.

They work for MSF's Belgian branch, which is not among those aid agencies expelled by the government.

MSF had run the only health clinic for the Saraf Umra area's 60,000 residents.

Although banditry is common in parts of the region, this is thought to be the first kidnapping of Western aid workers since two Britons were briefly detained by Darfur rebels in 2005.

The UN has said Sudan's decision to order out the aid groups has placed more than one million lives at risk.

The UN estimates that 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million been displaced since black African rebels took up arms in 2003 against the Arab-dominated regime demanding a greater share of resources and power.

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