March 30, 2013 (KHARTOUM) – Thirty-one civilians seized at gunpoint in Darfur by the Sudan Liberation Army-Abdel Wahid (SLA-AW) on March 24 were released, the Red Cross announced on Saturday .
The civilians were arrested while travelling under the escort of UN peacekeepers from Zalingei, capital of Central Darfur state to Nyala, capital of South Darfur state, to attend a conference for refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The group’s handover to Sudanese authorities was facilitated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
In a statement, the organisation said its personnel accompanied the group, who were flown by helicopter to Zalingei, where they were met by Sudanese authorities.
No further details were provided about the operation, which had been due to take place on Friday before being postponed due to "technical reasons".
According to the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the civilians were captured after a convoy they were travelling in was ambushed by armed men wearing military uniforms in seven jeeps with mounted guns.
Those abducted, who all came from the Wadi Saleh region in West Darfur, were reportedly taken to an unknown location in Jebel Marra.
Rebel leader Abdel Wahid Mohammed Al-Nur later confirmed his group was responsible for the attack.
Speaking to Radio Dabanga on Friday, SLA-AW military spokesman Mustapha Tambour reiterated claims that the captives were security agents affiliated with the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) who had been posing as IDPs.
There has been no official comment from either UNAMID or Sudanese authorities in response to the claims.
UNAMID has launched an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the incident, which occurred at the Arga checkpoint, at a border area between Central Darfur and South Darfur states.
The investigation comes after its patrols were blocked from accessing the checkpoint site on two separate occasions following the arrests.
“The Arga checkpoint incident is another indication of the amount of risks that UNAMID peacekeepers have to operate in across Darfur, including the risk of ambush, armed attacks, abduction, killing or looting,” the mission said in a statement on its website.
“The incident is also another example of how access restrictions have affected the mission’s work in several crucial ways” it added.
The group was being escorted by UNAMID at the request of the Darfur Regional Authority (DRA), which organised the Nyala event ahead of an upcoming international conference in Doha, which will be seeking donor funds to implement recovery and development projects in the conflict-affected region.
The two-day IDPs and refugees conference, which concluded on Tuesday, was attended by some 600 delegates. They called on the Sudanese government to exert all necessary efforts to end violence in the Darfur region and to create a conducive environment to facilitate the return of IDPs and refugees to their communities.