French employee kidnapped in Darfur

KHARTOUM: A French employee of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was kidnapped in the war-torn western Sudanese region of Darfur on Thursday, the aid agency said.

"We can confirm the abduction of one of our employees in the vicinity of El-Geneina," capital of West Darfur state, ICRC spokeswoman Tamara al-Rifai said in Khartoum.

The man was named as Gauthier Lefevre and had been working in Darfur for the past 15 months.

Sudan's minister of state for humanitarian affairs Abdel Baqi Gilani told AFP that Lefevre was in "good health" and that he expected him to be released soon.

"He is in good health according to the first report I have received," Gilani said without elaboration.

"I think he will be released soon. The ICRC is very respected and neutral and has no enmity among Darfur groups," Gilani said.

In Geneva, the ICRC said the incident occurred around midday as Lefevre "was returning with other ICRC staff to El-Geneina after completing a field trip north of the town to help local communities upgrade their water supply systems.

"He was travelling in one of two clearly marked ICRC vehicles when he was seized a few kilometres (miles) from the town."

Rifai said that a small group of expatriates as well as local Sudanese staff were travelling with Lefevre when he was abducted but were not harmed and were able to continue the trip.

"We don't know why they targeted him (Lefevre,)" Rifai said.

The ICRC said it had no immediate information concerning the abductors or their motives, while Gilani described the kidnappers as "bandits" and said the Khartoum government "condemns" the incident.

The Red Cross also called for Lefevre's immediate and "unconditional release" -- a demand also made by the French foreign ministry in Paris -- and said it is "in contact with the authorities and other parties with the aim of resolving the situation as swiftly as possible."

Earlier Gilani told AFP that the authorities are "trying to collect information" on the abduction, which he said occurred "in a zone near (the border with) Chad."

A senior Chadian rebel official contacted by AFP denied any Chadian rebel involvement in the abduction.

Thursday's abduction was the fifth of a foreign worker since March, when Sudan's ties with foreign relief organisations soured after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for President Omar al-Beshir on charges of war crimes in Darfur.

But it was the first time a Red Cross employee was targeted.

Gilani voiced concern of more abductions and urged foreign relief organisations "to bolster security around their offices."

A relief official echoed his concern and said: "What has been happening in Darfur is very worrisome. I hope that the government will take this seriously."

On Sunday, two female aid workers -- Irishwoman Sharon Commins and Ugandan Hilda Kawuki -- were freed after 107 days of gruelling captivity in Darfur.

The two women's captivity was the longest endured by foreign aid staff in Darfur since the conflict erupted in the region in early 2003.

Two members of Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres MSF) and French aid agency Aide Medicale Internationale (AMI) were kidnapped in March and April but were later freed unharmed.

However two civilian employees of the UN-African Union joint peacekeeping force in Darfur who were kidnapped in August at Zalingei in west Darfur are still in the hands of their abductors.

The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have fled their homes since ethnic minority rebels in Darfur rose up against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum in February 2003.

The government says 10,000 people have been killed.