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By Andrew Heavens
Khartoum - Ireland's foreign minister met senior Sudanese officials in Khartoum on Sunday to press for the release of an Irish aid worker and her Ugandan colleague kidnapped in Darfur more than two months ago.
Sharon Commins from Dublin and Hilda Kawuki, who both work for Irish aid group GOAL, were seized by armed men in early July. Theirs is the longest-running abduction in a new wave of kidnappings in Sudan's violent west.
"They have been held for nearly 65 days... Naturally things have to be stepped up as far as negotiations are concerned," Ireland's honorary consul in Sudan Ronnie Shaoul told reporters.
Foreign minister Micheal Martin met his Sudanese counterpart Deng Alor, the Khartoum government's point man on Darfur Ghazi Salaheddin and Sudan's state minister for humanitarian affairs Abdel Baqi al-Jailani.
In a brief statement to journalists, Martin said he wanted to pass on the Irish people's concern about the kidnapping and his government's willingness to help efforts to free the women.
Ireland already has diplomats and negotiators in Khartoum and El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur.
Sudan's government has blamed the kidnapping on bandits and says it is determined not to pay a ransom. Ministers say they have identified the kidnappers and are negotiating through leaders of their nomadic tribe.
Darfur rebels accuse Khartoum of masterminding the kidnappings as part of a campaign of harassment against aid groups in Darfur, a charge the government denies.
Kidnappings of foreign aid workers were unheard of in Darfur until March. Since then, armed men have seized four groups of foreigners in the remote western region, and a humanitarian worker just over Darfur's border in Chad.
Three of the kidnappings were resolved after negotiation. Two civilians working for Darfur's joint UN/African Union peacekeeping force, taken from the town of Zalingei eight days ago, remain in captivity.
UN officials said one is a Nigerian man and the other a Zimbabwean woman.
Darfur's conflict, which erupted in 2003 when mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms against Sudan's government accusing it of neglecting the region, has descended into a free-for-all of tribal clashes and banditry.
Aid groups say they have faced increased hostility and threats since the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant in March for Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, to face charges that he masterminded war crimes in Darfur. - Reuters