Canadian nurse Laura Archer, Italian doctor Mauro D'Ascanio, and French coordinator Raphaël Meunier, as well as their Sudanese watchman Sharif Mohamadin, all working for Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, were safely released Saturday by unknown gunmen after three days in captivity.
A rebel leader and analysts say the kidnapping and recent expulsion of 13 aid groups are part of a government strategy to scare away remaining aid workers and break up camps housing Sudanese civilians who have fled the war.
"This is the plan of Khartoum," the capital and seat of the Sudanese government, says Abdul Wahid al-Nour, the founder of the Sudan Liberation Movement, one of several rebel factions in Darfur fighting the government over claims that their people have been marginalized. Mr. Nour says the government is trying to force nongovernmental organizations out – "either by expelling them directly or terrorizing them."
The strategy, he argues, is to punish the people of Darfur, a semiarid land along Sudan's western border with Chad, where mostly non-Arab rebels have been fighting the Arab-dominated government since 2003. That punishment, he says, is either "directly" with attacks by Russian-made bomber planes and government-sponsored janjaweed militia – accused of some of the worst atrocities in Darfur – or "indirectly, by cutting off a lifeline to them, which is medication and food."
Sudan's government denies any involvement in the kidnapping. Sudanese officials told the Associated Press Saturday that they will increase protection for aid groups operating in Darfur. But aid groups generally resist such armed protection, viewing it as a violation of their impartiality.
Darfur was home to the world's largest humanitarian operation until the government last week expelled 13 aid organizations from the country – a move that sparked criticism from the United Nations and the Western world. The expulsion followed this month's decision by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to charge Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir with war crimes.
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?
"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.
"It's quite likely [the government] wants to break up Kalma [camp], because it's a security threat," de Waal says of Darfur's largest and most volatile camp, which houses some 88,000 displaced Darfuris. The UN says Sudanese forces killed 31 civilians last August when they tried to enter the camp in search of illegal weapons. "By expelling NGOs, you remove the main witnesses of whatever happens."
The expulsion of international NGOs from Sudan was not, as it may have appeared, the reaction from an angry, vulnerable president.
Within minutes of the March 4 announcement that President Bashir was wanted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, aid workers said at least six NGOs in Khartoum received phone calls requesting immediate meetings with the government's relief body, the Humanitarian Aid Commission in Khartoum.
Within the hour, some had already received letters revoking their licenses to operate. By the end of the day, in total 10 NGOs had been expelled. By the next day, three others had followed suit. Relatively speaking, the NGOs say, it was quite an organized operation.
The government accused the aid groups of being spies, conspiring with the ICC against the Sudanese president and threatening the country's national security.
Precisely a week later, a group of armed men took the three Western aid workers in northern Darfur, holding them hostage for three days, before releasing them unharmed. Both Doctors Without Borders and the government said they paid no ransom for their release.
At first, the government said the kidnappers were bandits. Now, North Darfur's governor Mohammed Osman Kibir says the group he identified as Eagles of Al Bashir, acted out of anger over the ICC decision.
Analysts say these abductions could also have been organized by the state's security services. According to one analyst, the kidnappers wore military uniform and were likely former Janjaweed militia who had been integrated into the state structure as border guards or Central Reserve Police.
"The fact that they entered the compound, that they abducted these people without looting the place, and that they were wearing camouflage – these aren't just bandits," he says. "There is plenty of banditry. This is something different."
This could just be a conspiracy theory. Darfur is an unstable place, home to armed peacekeepers, government troops, allied militia, and a myriad of different rebel factions, who have frequently turned against one another.
Most of the numerous carjackings and ambushes in the region are attributable to rebels trying to gain vehicles and communications equipment, international peacekeepers and aid workers say. "It's a very tense time and that's being exploited by various, nefarious actors on the ground," a US State Department official says.
The government says suggestions of its involvement in the kidnapping are "absolutely false," noting that it was instrumental in negotiating the aid workers' release.