THE Irish aid worker kidnapped in Sudan was due to leave the country in a few weeks’ time.
Sharon Commins, from Dublin, was seized at gunpoint last Friday week from the GOAL compound in Darfur. She has been based in the region for 18 months.
The 31-year-old – who has been kidnapped by what is being described as a ‘criminal gang’ – had been expected home on July 23 for a holiday before returning to the region for one last overseas stint.
Parish priest Fr Michael Hastings said last night: ‘It’s a terrible shame, especially as she was getting ready to return home.’
It also emerged last night that the Irish Army, currently based across the border in neighbouring Chad, may be called on to help in any rescue operation or negotiations.
GOAL founder John O’Shea said: ‘I would hope that experts in this sort of thing from the Irish Army will be involved if there is to be any rescue operation.’
He described Commins as his ‘left-hand person’, and a ‘switched-on young lady’ who was ‘very clever, very intelligent’. He added: ‘I am confident she will handle herself better than a lot of people who wouldn’t have the qualities that this lady has.”
The elite Army Rangers Wing spearheads the operation in the war-torn region, which began in February last year.
There are currently 411 Irish Defence Forces personnel, based mostly in Camp Ciara near the town of Goz Beida in eastern Chad, about 100km from the border of Sudan.
The army is mandated by the UN to protect refugees from the six-year-old ethnic conflict now living in Chad but not to cross the border into Sudan.
Camp Ciara is some 400km from where Miss Commins was based in the town of Kutum in the north of the Sudanese province of Darfur.
Miss Commins, who has previously helped in the massive Asian tsunami relief operation of 2004, was one of two women kidnapped from the charity’s compound.
She has a BSc in Communications from DIT, and a Masters in International Relations from DCU. She spent the last four years working with GOAL, initially as a press officer in GOAL’s Dun Laoghaire headquarters, and for the past 18 months in Sudan as a project manager and report writer.
Hilda Kawuki – the other kidnap victim – has a Bachelor of Science in dietetics and is a master of medical science in human nutrition. The 41-year-old Ugandan aid worker has worked as a nutritionist and dietician, and worked for a number of NGOs in this area of expertise before joining GOAL in Sudan.
Eight gunmen stormed the compound at about 6.30pm local time last Friday evening and overpowered security guards before making their way to the house where the two women were living.
Miss Commins, who was on a day off when the incident happened, and Miss Kawuki were then thrust into one of the kidnappers’ cars, which then sped off.
The kidnappers also took mobile phones and computer equipment.
It is not known what the army’s involvement is to date – if any – but Sudanese officials have finally made touch with Sharon’s kidnappers, and both women are described as ‘safe and sound’.
Speaking from the family home last Saturday, her father, Mark, said: ‘We are very concerned about the situation and worried for Sharon. We are also praying for her safe return.’
The last time the family spoke to Miss Commins was just hours before her kidnap.
Her brother, Martin, said: ‘I got an email form her (last) Thursday and my mother, Agatha, spoke to her on Friday afternoon.’
Miss Commins’s kidnapping is the first in GOAL’s history but the third in the region in the past four months. Due to this incident, the charity has decided to pull its remaining staff from the area until she is rescued.
Key to the search for her whereabouts are local tribal chiefs based around what is the largest country in Africa. Although there are more than 595 tribes and some 400 different dialects, the Sudanese Government – which has also appointed a national crisis management team to deal with the kidnapping – has managed to narrow down an area of the country where Ms Commins is being held.
Officials are frantically trying to find the women, whose kidnap they have described as ‘deplorable’. “It is in our interests to have two ladies come back to their families,” Mr Omer Mohamed Ahmed Siddig told TDs and senators on Wednesday.
He recalled that in a previous kidnapping, four or five days passed before any contact was made. He said: ‘But with the involvement of local chiefs, we were able to establish contacts with them and we were able to release the two hostages. I hope this will be the case again.’
Helping the Sudanese government are French and British diplomats with experience of dealing with hostage situations as well as Irish officials – including the Irish Ambassador to Cairo, Gerrard Corr, who flew out to Darfur last Saturday week.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who met Brian Cowen as part of his official UN visit to Ireland, is also throwing his weight behind moves to secure the two women’s release.
He said: ‘I’m sorry and concerned that an Irish national has been kidnapped in Sudan. We will spare no efforts in providing necessary support and cooperation in terms of logistics and in terms of collecting information and in terms of working together with the Sudanese government, first of all to identify and locate and to have the safe return of your nationals.’
As part of that help, the UN is making available access to their own local agencies – including various ‘security services’.
A ransom demand has been made but the Sudanese Government has stressed it will not pay any ransom, nor be involved in any negotiations to pay one.