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13 police killed in Darfur hostage rescue bid

world Updated: Sep 10, 2011 09:11 IST

Thirteen Sudanese police officers were killed and 30 wounded in clashes with an armed gang as they tried to rescue three unidentified hostages in the war-torn Darfur region, police said on Friday.

"What happened yesterday involved an armed gang, not a rebel group. The police tried to release three hostages in eastern Jebel Marra. Clashes broke out with the gang and we lost 13 men and 30 others were wounded," Ahmed al-Tughani said.

He was unable to provide further details, including on the identity of the hostages, and when contacted, the UN-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID) had no information on the botched rescue mission.

But Sudanese newspaper Al-Ahdath, citing police sources, said one of the hostages was an Italian, another was a businessman from Nyala, the state capital of South Darfur, and the third was a police officer.

In August, Italian humanitarian worker Francesco Azzara, who worked at a child-care centre in Nyala, was kidnapped as he was driving to the airport.

Azzara, 34, was in charge of logistics at the paediatric centre opened in Nyala by the charity Emergency in July 2010.

The Italian foreign ministry said on Friday that there were "no links between the case of Azzara" and the police operation, a claim supported by Emergency's president Cecilia Strada.

"According to our local sources, it appears that the police operation in Sudan does not concern our staff member Francesco Azzara," she was quoted as telling Italy's ANSA news agency.

Emergency, which has been operating in Sudan since 2004, has two child-care centres, in Nyala and the Mayo refugee camp near Khartoum, and a heart clinic at Soba, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the Sudanese capital.

At least 300,000 people have been killed and 1.9 million people have fled their homes since the Darfur conflict erupted in 2003 between non-Arab rebels and the Arab-dominated Khartoum regime, the United Nations says.

The government says only 10,000 have been killed in the conflict and insists the ongoing lack of security in Darfur is the result of tribal conflict, minority armed forces and banditry.

Speaking in New York on Thursday, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations, Mark Lyall Grant, told journalists the security situation in Darfur was "still very bad."

There has been a wave of kidnappings for ransom since March 2009 when the International Criminal Court indicted President Omar al-Bashir for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

A humanitarian worker based in Khartoum, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the kidnappings have undermined aid operations.

"The restrictions on movement in Darfur because of insecurity, which the kidnappings are a part of, hamper our ability to distribute food assistance," she said, adding as many as 4.1 million Darfuris depended on food handouts.

Around 30 foreigners have been kidnapped in Darfur since Bashir's initial indictment, with most of them released unharmed a few days later.

But three Bulgarian helicopter pilots, abducted while working under a UN contract, were freed in June after spending 145 days in captivity.

Following a relative lull, there have been sporadic clashes in Darfur since December between rebel groups and government forces that have displaced more than 70,000 people, according to UN estimates.