Irish aid worker returns home

DUBLIN: An Irish aid worker who was subject to mock executions during a gruelling 107 days in captivity in Darfur arrived home Tuesday to an emotional reunion with her family in Dublin, officials said.

Sharon Commins and her Ugandan colleague Hilda Kawuki were seized by a gang of armed men on July 3 from a compound run by Irish relief group GOAL in the western Sudanese region.

Commins described Monday how they thought they were going to die several times during their captivity on remote mountaintops at the hands of armed men, some of whom she described as "evil."

"We'd be told to kneel on our knees and they would shoot around us," she said in an interview with Ireland's RTE state broadcaster. "Obviously the first time that happened we thought we were absolutely going to be shot."

The 33-year-old said they never knew whether it was going to be a mock execution or the real thing.

"None of these guys wear glasses so you are not even sure how accurate their sight is, so it was just an extremely dangerous situation to be in. It was extremely scary and we were always anxious," she added.

Commins flew into Baldonnel Aerodrome southwest of Dublin in a government plane just before midnight (2300 GMT Monday), and was met by her parents Mark and Agatha and the rest of her family, a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin, who travelled to Khartoum last month in an effort to secure the release of the two women, also greeted her at the airport and expressed admiration at her courage.

"We knew from early on that Sharon was a special type of person, a strong person, good mental resilience and it was just incredible that both herself and Hilda held themselves together throughout that three months plus," he said.

"It's a huge testament to their courage and ability to stay the course through what was a very traumatic and difficult ordeal."

Kawuki, 42, was due to return home on Tuesday, and said she could not wait.

"I can't wait to see the family. I am very exhausted because we have not really rested since being released," she said in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on Monday.

The pair were freed early Sunday after local tribal chiefs pressured their kidnappers into releasing them, North Darfur state humanitarian affairs minister Abdel Baqi Gilani said, adding that no ransom was paid.

"We are very, very grateful to the government of Sudan and the people of Sudan who prayed for us and kept our family strong and us strong," Commins said.

The women's 107 days of captivity were the longest endured by foreign aid staff in Darfur since the conflict erupted there in early 2003.

Sudan's relations with foreign relief organisations soured in March after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar al-Beshir on charges of war crimes in Darfur. Related article: Ais groups welcome new US policy

Gilani said those who carried out the latest kidnapping must be brought to justice, telling AFP: "They must be punished otherwise there will be no more order" in Darfur.

Two civilian employees of the UN-African Union joint peacekeeping force in Darfur remain in captivity after being kidnapped at Zalingei in west Darfur in August. None of the previous kidnappers has been prosecuted.

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.