Red Cross calls for release of three staff missing in Syria

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Red Cross calls for release of three staff missing in Syria

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has appealed for information about three of its staff members abducted in Syria more than five years ago.

The ICRC said on Sunday that Louisa Akavi, Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes were kidnapped in the northwestern state of Idlib in late 2013, revealing their identities for the first time in the hope of securing their release.

The status of Akavi, a 62-year-old New Zealand nurse, is unknown, but her employer said it has received recent witness reports suggesting she might be alive.

“Our latest credible information indicates that Louisa was alive in late 2018,” the ICRC said.

Dominik Stillhart, ICRC director of operations, said it decided to permit publication of her name in the hope that it would lead to more information about Akavi’s whereabouts.

“We have not spoken publicly before today because from the moment Louisa and the others were kidnapped, every decision we made was to maximise the chances of winning their freedom,” Stillhart said in a statement.

“With Islamic State group having lost the last of its territory, we felt it was now time to speak out,” it said referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS).

US-backed Syrian forces announced the capture of ISIL’s last pocket of territory in northeastern Syria last month, eliminating its rule over a self-declared caliphate it had proclaimed in Iraq and Syria in 2014.

ICRC officials said Akavi might have been swept up among some 70,000 women and children who fled to al-Hol camp after the fall of ISIL.

The outpouring has sparked a humanitarian crisis in the Kurdish-run camps, which are struggling to accommodate the influx of women and children.

At a news conference on Monday, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to answer questions about Akavi but indicated she was disappointed the ICRC had gone public before her fate had been learned.

“You’ll forgive me, I hope, for not commenting on that case,” Ardern said. “It remains the government’s view that it would be preferable if the case was not in the public domain.”

‘Unconditional release’

New Zealand’s foreign minister confirmed on Monday Akavi has been held captive by the ISIL armed group in Syria and said his country is continuing to work with ICRC to “locate and recover” Akavi.

“This has been a uniquely complex and difficult case … Louisa went to Syria with the ICRC to deliver humanitarian relief to people suffering as a result of a brutal civil war and ISIS occupation,” Winston Peters said.

“Where a New Zealander is held by a terrorist organisation, the government takes all appropriate action to recover them. That is exactly what we have done here,” he added.

ICRC President Peter Maurer raised the case during a visit to the camp last month, the group said.

“The past five and a half years have been an extremely difficult time for the families of our three abducted colleagues. Louisa is a true and compassionate humanitarian. Alaa and Nabil were committed colleagues and an integral part of our aid deliveries,” said Stillhart, the group’s director of operations.

“We call on anyone with information to please come forward. If our colleagues are still being held, we call for their immediate and unconditional release,” he said.

ICRC had not been able to learn more details about the fate of the two drivers, both of whom were “dedicated husbands and caring fathers”.

The three staff members were travelling in a Red Cross convoy that was delivering supplies to medical facilities in the northwestern province of Idlib in Syria, when armed men stopped their vehicles on October 13, 2013.

The gunmen abducted seven people; four were released the following day, according to the ICRC’s statement.

Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, said the ICRC is gathering information from those who used to live under ISIL’s rule.

“ISIL was territorially defeated a few weeks ago, thousands of wives and children of ISIL fighters are now in a camp in northeast Syria, so it is trying to gather information,” she said.

“The ICRC staff members are not the only ones who were [held] by ISIL and remain missing: there is the Italian priest Father Paolo, the British journalist John Cantlie who appeared in ISIL propaganda videos and Lebanese cameraman Samir Kassab,” she added.

Meanwhile, Akavi’s family said they miss her and are proud of the work to which she has dedicated her life.

“We think about her every day and hope she feels that and finds strength in that,” said a video statement issued by family spokesman Tuaine Robati.

“We know she is thinking of us and that she will be worried about us too.”

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