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Sunday 19 November 2017

Aid worker Sharon 'left to endure two extra months of kidnap hell'

Sudan blocked ransom that could have ended Sharon's kidnap terror weeks earlier

KIDNAPPED: Aid worker Sharon Commins
KIDNAPPED: Aid worker Sharon Commins

Shane Phelan, Investigative Correspondent

THE hell endured by kidnapped Irish aid worker Sharon Commins was prolonged for several weeks because the government of Sudan vetoed a deal to free her in exchange for a ransom, leaked embassy cables reveal.

The confidential dispatches detail how a local governor was close to brokering an agreement to secure the release of Ms Commins and her fellow GOAL aid agency worker, Ugandan national Hilda Kawuki, at least six weeks before they were eventually freed.

According to the cables -- obtained by the Irish Independent from whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks -- the deal was to involve the payment of an unspecified ransom.

However, an advisor to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir vetoed the plan over fears it would encourage further kidnappings.

The Irish government was also against any ransom being paid, but is not thought to have been consulted about the scuppering of the governor's initiative.

The vetoing of the ransom effectively almost doubled the length of time the aid workers would spend in captivity in the Kutum area of north Darfur.

They were eventually let go after being held for 108 days.

Both women were terrorised and forced to endure mock executions during the kidnap ordeal, which lasted from July 3 to October 18, 2009.

A series of US diplomatic cables reveal key details of behind-the-scenes negotiations, which have remained secret until now.

Former Foreign Affairs Minister and current Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin had invoked a seldom-used clause in the Freedom of Information Act to block the release of information on the case, claiming it was too sensitive.

However, the Irish Independent can now reveal how:

* The kidnappers initially demanded a US$2m (€1.38m) ransom before dropping their demands to US$300,000 (€208,000);

* Sudanese government officials told the kidnappers no ransom would be paid and the maximum they could hope for was freedom from prosecution in return for the release of the aid workers;

* The release of the two women was eventually only brought about after the Sudanese government pressurised tribal leaders, who in turn put pressure on the kidnappers;

* Sudan's ambassador to Ireland, Omer Mohamed Ahmed Siddig, used a meeting with Mr Martin about the kidnapping to press him over Ireland's support of the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictment of Mr Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The US embassy in Khartoum sent five cables about the kidnapping to the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the US embassy in Dublin.

The content of the cables was based on private briefings the Americans received from Irish, Sudanese and Ugandan diplomats as the hostage drama unfolded.

Gerard Corr, Ireland's ambassador to Cairo, met with US charges d'affaires Robert Whitehead in Khartoum, Sudan, to seek US support to help resolve the kidnapping peacefully.

Mr Corr first briefed Mr Whitehead on July 8 -- five days after armed men took the GOAL workers from their compound at gunpoint.

Mr Corr had arrived in Khartoum accompanied by a small police and military team to liaise with Sudanese officials.

At that stage, the identity of the kidnappers was unknown.

"Corr said that the group holding the two women had made no demands, and that the Irish government is unwilling to pay a ransom for their release," Mr Whitehead wrote.

A source within the UN later told US officials the kidnappers were members of the Mahamid tribe, which was responsible for the kidnapping of three Medicins Sans Frontiers and two Assistance Medicale International staff in the months prior to the GOAL kidnappings.

According to one cable, Irish officials believed a failed attempt to secure the hostages' release was made by the Sudanese government in mid to late August.

They believed this involved financial compensation and gifts -- such as 4x4s -- being given to tribal and religious leaders.

However, Mr Bashir's advisor, Dr Ghazi Salaheddin, told Mr Whitehead a different story when he met him on September 3.

He said the Wali, or governor, of North Darfur, had been in frequent contact with the kidnappers -- who he described as consisting of "unruly elements of an Arab tribe" -- and was "at one point about to make a deal" to buy the kidnappers off with payment of ransom.

However, Dr Ghazi said he vetoed the move for fear that it would provoke a rash of copycat attempts.

Dr Ghazi also said a rescue operation with the use of force was off the table because it could risk the lives of the hostages.

"He characterised the current situation as 'a battle of attrition'," said Mr Whitehead.

Following another meeting with Mr Corr on September 8, Mr Whitehead reported that the hostage-takers had initially sought US$2m, but reduced the demand to US$300,000 on September 5.

It was also clear at that stage that the group, which was initially 11-strong, had dwindled to possibly just four individuals.

"At no point has the group made any political demands. Their motivation in the abduction clearly is for criminal gain according to the ambassador," wrote Mr Whitehead.

Following the release of Ms Commins and Ms Kawuki, Dr Ghazi told Mr Whitehead that the tribal leaders of those who had organised the kidnappings had been responsible for the freeing of the two women.

"He said GOS (government of Sudan) had made it clear to the tribal leaders that this act would not go unpunished if it were not resolved," wrote Mr Whitehead.

"The tribal leaders subsequently leaned on the kidnappers to let the women go. Ghazi confirmed previous reports ... that no ransom was paid."

It also emerged in one cable how Sudan's ambassador to Ireland used a meeting with Mr Martin, which had been organised to discuss the kidnappings, to instead raise Ireland's public support for the ICC indictment of Mr Bashir.

However, according to Mr Corr, the Sudanese ambassador did not link the issue to the resolution of the kidnapping case.

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