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Page last updated at 12:45 GMT, Tuesday, 13 April 2010 13:45 UK

DR Congo rebels seize Red Cross workers

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Eight Red Cross workers have been kidnapped in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the aid group says.

The team, seven Congolese and one Swiss national, was seized by rebels on Friday in South Kivu as they returned from a trip to help displaced people.

A Red Cross source told the BBC contact has been made with the pro-government Mai Mai Yakutumba militia holding them.

UN peacekeepers, who operate across the lawless eastern region, have also been asked to help.

There has been instability and violent conflict in eastern DR Congo for almost two decades and the International Committee of the Red Cross is one of the few aid organisations working there.

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

Targeted?

The ICRC said their staff were being held in the vicinity of Fizi town in South Kivu where violent clashes had displaced thousands of civilians in recent months.

UN vehicles near Goma
The UN has 20,500 personnel in DR Congo

"We continue to insist that the strictly neutral, impartial and humanitarian nature of our work be recognised, and that our colleagues be able to return to their loved ones soon," Franz Rauchenstein, head of the ICRC's Congolese delegation, said in a statement.

Negotiators still do not know whether the gunmen targeted the Red Cross team, or took advantage of an unexpected opportunity as they returned from an assessment mission in the high-plateau area of Minembwe.

An ICRC spokeswoman told the BBC they had been able to talk directly to the staff members by phone every day since their detention; she said they were fine.

A separate Red Cross source in the regional capital Goma declined to say whether the Mai Mai had made any demands.

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, he says.

The UN has the world's biggest peacekeeping mission in DR Congo, trying to stop fighting between armed groups.

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

The mission's current mandate expires in May and the UN is in talks with DR Congo officials about withdrawing it.



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