Red Cross calls for Congo hostages’ release

The Red Cross has been helping provide supplies to internally displaced people in the Kivu region

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has demanded the release of eight of its staff members captured by militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

This content was published on April 13, 2010 - 14:49

The Swiss-run organisation confirmed on Tuesday that seven Congolese and one Swiss national had been seized by armed members of the Mai Mai Yakutumba group in the South Kivu town of Fizi on Friday afternoon.

The aid workers were returning from a trip assessing needs of displaced people in the area. A humanitarian aid source from the area told the AFP news agency that the ICRC staff had been intercepted by the group and ordered to follow them to the town of Kasakwa.

ICRC spokesman Marcal Izard said that his organisation had been in touch with some of the victims and their families; he declined to say whether contact was made with the kidnappers.

The Swiss foreign ministry said it was aware of the situation and that it had been in contact with both the ICRC and the Congolese authorities.

“We demand that the group holding our personnel release them as quickly as possible,” said Franz Rauchenstein, the head of the ICRC's mission in Congo.

The Mai Mai Yakutumba group is one of several factions of the Mai Mai, a broad term used to describe the local defence militia that fought for the government against rebels during Congo's wars.

Yakutumba last year pulled out of United Nations-led efforts to integrate its fighters into Congo's new army, complaining about the conditions on offer. Its leader, Yakutumba Amuli, rejected a senior rank in the army.

Neutral work

The ICRC has several offices in South Kivu, which like much of eastern Congo has been wracked by violence since the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda spilled war across the border. In recent months violence in the area has led to the displacement of thousands of civilians.

Access is difficult owing to the remoteness of the region, logistical challenges and security conditions, the ICRC said.

The organisation also noted that a new outbreak of fighting in the area could put the hostages at risk. While they were able to confirm the staff were in good health, contact has been cut since fighting erupted around Fizi on Monday night.

The ICRC is among the few aid groups working in the area.

"It is in order to protect and assist armed-conflict victims that we have been carrying out our activities in the area," said Rauchenstein.

"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."

On the same day as the kidnapping another ICRC team officially handed over 72 water sources that had been improved or newly built over the past two years in Fizi – providing better access to drinking water for more than 20,000 people.

Targets for kidnapping

ICRC staff have also been targeted for kidnapping in other conflict regions recently.

Three foreign Red Cross workers were kidnapped in the Philippines last year, and French staff members were seized in Chad and Sudan. All have since been released.

Earlier this year following the release of a French-British hostage who had been held in Dafur for 147 days, the ICRC decided to scale down relief work in the region to protect its staff from further kidnappings.

Over the past ten years ICRC employees have been abducted in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Gaza, Congo, the Caucasus and Somalia.

swissinfo and agencies

Red Cross kidnappings

March 2010: A French-British ICRC worker is freed 147 days after being abducted in Sudan.

January 2009: Three ICRC staff including one Swiss are taken hostage by Islamic rebels in the Philippines, and released in April and July.

February 2008: Two Pakistani employees are captured near Peshwar, Pakistan and are held for two weeks.

September 2007: Four ICRC staff are held for four days by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

September 2006: Ethiopian separatists capture Irish and Ethiopian ICRC employees.

March 2006: Swiss ICRC delegate is kidnapped in Gaza.

August 2003: Chechen employee disappears in Grozny.

November 2002: Two drivers are held for five days in Caucasus.

August 2000: Two staff are held for ten days in Georgia near the Chechen borders.

August 2000: Two CRC staff are abducted in Congo’s Brazzaville and are freed in December.

May 1999: New Zealand employee is captured in Naltchik, Causcasus.

June 1998: Swiss employee Laurent Giger and five local staff are held in Ethiopia.

April 1998: Ten ICRC staff are abducted, including two Swiss, Thomas Gurtner and Markus Fasel, in Somalia.

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