EL FASHER, SUDAN — Days after Sudan's president derided international humanitarian workers here as "spies" and "thieves," three volunteers with Doctors Without Borders were kidnapped from their compound in Darfur.
The abductions late Wednesday appeared to be part of the ongoing backlash in Sudan over an arrest warrant issued last week by the International Criminal Court in The Hague against President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir.
Seven gunmen scaled the walls of the medical relief group's facility in Saraf Umra, about 125 miles west of El Fasher, and seized the aid workers, along with two Sudanese guards who were later released.
Though foreign aid workers in western Sudan have been subjected to violence, the attack is believed to mark the first time any have been kidnapped.
"This is something new," said Noureddine Mezni, spokesman for the United Nations Mission in Darfur. "We deplore this act."
Doctors Without Borders said Thursday that it was withdrawing most of its foreign staff, forcing the closure of several clinics and medical facilities that it operates in Darfur.
The identity of the kidnappers was unclear, officials said, but negotiations were underway to secure the release of the victims, a Canadian nurse, an Italian doctor and a French administrator. Sudanese officials said they were assisting.
Kidnappers provided one of the released guards with a satellite telephone number, which the medical group called to speak to the kidnapped workers Thursday, officials said. The workers said they were being held in a remote desert area and were being treated well.
The kidnapping comes just a week after Doctors Without Borders and 12 other international aid groups were ordered to leave the country. The expulsions came shortly after the ICC indicted Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from the counterinsurgency campaign in Darfur.
Two of the five Doctors Without Borders international divisions, those from France and the Netherlands, were ordered out of the country. The unit from Belgium was operating the clinic that was attacked Wednesday night.
In justifying the expulsions, the government accused the aid groups of providing the ICC with evidence about human rights violations that was used to build the case against Bashir. The president also said the groups were inefficient, alleging that they spent most of their money on themselves.
The groups, which include most of the largest agencies in Darfur, denied the allegations.
Doctors Without Borders officials in recent days had expressed growing alarm at Bashir's public rhetoric, in which he has taken sharp aim at the international aid community.
"Calling someone a 'thief' in Arabic is very bad," said Thierry Durand, with the French division of the medical group, in an interview this week before the abduction. "Those kinds of comments put everyone at risk. [Aid groups] are easy targets."
Even before the ICC arrest warrant was issued, Sudanese officials had ordered some of the medical group's international staff to evacuate, citing security concerns. In the days following the announcement, a Doctors Without Borders dispensary near El Fasher was attacked twice by bandits.
The focus on Doctors Without Borders is surprising to many because the group prides itself on maintaining warm relations with the communities it serves, often operating in remote and dangerous locations that receive no assistance from the local government or U.N.
The kidnappings are certain to complicate Darfur's already beleaguered humanitarian effort. U.N. agencies in Darfur are scrambling to fill the gaps left by the expelled aid groups, and the new security threat is likely to make finding replacements harder.
"Everyone is very worried," said one U.N. official who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity.
Last year, U.N. agencies tightened their security measures in Sudan, ordering employees' families to leave the country. This week, the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum raised its security alert, authorizing nonessential staff and relatives to leave if they choose.