Doctors free after ordeal in Sudan civil war zone

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The Independent Online


Two doctors, an Italian and a Sudanese, were yesterday freed by the Sudanese government after two months in detention. Their capture in rebel- held southern Sudan was part of a series of mishaps which have severely embarrassed the United Nations humanitarian operation.

Professor Giuseppe Meo and Dr Hashim Ziada had set off from the UN's Operation Lifeline Sudan (OLS) base in northern Kenya at the end of May. Their destination was the remote area of Pariang, deep inside southern Sudan. There they intended to conduct a medical assessment for the Italian charity Committato de Collaborazione Medica (CCM). Though CCM is affiliated to OLS, their mission was conducted outside the aegis of the UN, which has consistently been denied Sudanese government clearance to land at Pariang.

While most of the towns in the south are under government control, Pariang has long been in the hands of the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA). Soon after the doctors' arrival at Pariang, however, the village was attacked by government forces and the two men were captured.

"We found out that something had gone wrong soon after the doctors were dropped off," said a CCM spokesman who declined to be named. "A plane was sent in to pick them up a few days later but there was no sign of the doctors. The pilot was told it was too dangerous to wait around and that he should take off again immediately."

At the Sudanese government's behest, a UN aircraft with three UN staff and two Sudanese government security advisers on board set off from Khartoum to retrieve the two doctors in Pariang. On landing it was discovered that Pariang had reverted to SPLA control and the passengers were immediately arrested by the rebels. They were taken to the SPLA stronghold of Chukudum where they were held until recently.

After being held in the wilds of southern Sudan, the doctors, both in their late fifties, were transferred to Khartoum 10 days ago. Professor Meo, who is said to have suffered from stress during his ordeal, is due to fly back to Italy today.

Sudan has been racked by civil war for most of the past 30 years. The current conflict, which began in 1983, has in recent years seen the Khartoum government making significant advances against the rebels but failing to secure a decisive victory.