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Kidnapping aid workers: part of Sudan's strategy?

Three Western aid workers were released Saturday. The government denies involvement but some analysts see a broader strategy at work.

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At a time when Sudan is lobbying to have the case against its president dropped and needs international support, why would one of Africa's most fragile countries choose the path of confrontation?

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"The government was angry and chose the most vulnerable target," says one Western analyst who has studied Sudan for close to two decades.

It could also have been a way of proving that the government is still in control, despite the indictment.

Part of the rationale for expulsion was "to follow through with its threats and show the international community that the arrest warrant is counterproductive for Darfur," says Wolfram Lacher, a Sudan analyst at Control Risks Group, a business risk consultancy.

Kicking the NGOs out could also have been out of genuine fear. According to Sudan expert Alex de Waal, program director at the New York-based Social Science Research Council, the ICC prosecutor publicly indicated that much of his information came from NGOs; and aid agencies lobbied the Security Council in favor of the arrest warrant [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Alex de Waal. He is not Sudanese.].

The Sudanese government believes there "is a conspiracy for peaceful regime change. The ICC is part of it. The NGOs could be part of it," Mr. de Waal says. "They genuinely believe that the NGOs were passing information to the ICC."

Some observers say that the expulsions and kidnapping were strategic.

"It is of course interesting to speculate whether this is a targeted attack designed to create a level of insecurity which causes us to rethink [our presence in Darfur]," says one aid worker in Sudan who asked for anonymity to avoid jeopardizing colleagues. "It is no secret that there are plenty of elements in the government who would prefer us all to leave."

Why? Getting rid of aid workers would help dissolve the dozens of camps in Darfur that house some 2.7 million people displaced by the conflict, who come for safety and humanitarian relief. The government says the camps are bastions of instability, where rebels are fed and housed and their weapons illegally harbored.

"The government still wants to win the war," says Colin Thomas-Jensen, policy adviser, at the Washington-based Enough project, which aims to prevent genocide. "They want to make the humanitarian situation go away."

By decreasing the level of aid in the camps, he says, the government will force people to leave, removing threats to its security and reducing rebel recruitment grounds. Driving out aid workers would also ensure that no one was around to watch if violence broke out.