Khartoum- Four UN deminers, including South African Thabo Siavhe, arrested by the Sudanese army along Sudan’s tense southern border, were released on Sunday and turned over to chief AU mediator Thabo Mbeki.
“We release them to President Mbeki,” Sudanese Defence Minister Abdelrahim Mohammed Hussein said in a ceremony at Sudan’s military headquarters here, more than three weeks after the men were detained.
Mbeki has been in Khartoum since Thursday, meeting officials, including President Omar al-Bashir, in an effort to push Sudan and South Sudan back to negotiations which were suspended after border fighting last month.
“I raised your issue with president Bashir and the government explained to us the circumstances of your arrest, and then we asked president Bashir to release you,” Mbeki said, addressing the four men: a Briton, a Norwegian, a South African and a South Sudanese.
Their release came after a meeting late on Saturday between Al-Bashir and Mbeki, who is trying to bring the two countries back to the negotiating table. “We asked president Bashir to release you,” Mbeki told the four at the ceremony. “All of us will go together.”
Mbeki then left the defence ministry together with the four men. He was due to fly to Juba yesterday for talks with southern officials. “We thank the government of Sudan and we appreciate the effort of president Mbeki.
“We are so happy now that we are going,” the Norwegian, John Sorbo, said.
Hussein said they had been freed because two of them worked for a South African company, “and we appreciate the efforts of president Mbeki to solve the issues between Sudan and South Sudan”. But he accused the four foreigners of “working for one of the parties” because they were captured in a combat zone.
Sudan’s army announced on April 28 that it arrested the men in the Heglig oil region as they collected “war debris for investigation”, and suggested they were working in support of South Sudan in its “aggression” against the north.
The arrest in April came after weeks of fighting along the 1 800km contested border that brought the two countries closer to an all-out war than at any time since South Sudan seceded from the North.
The southern nation, which became independent in July, had seized the disputed Heglig oil area earlier in April, but then withdrew under heavy international pressure.
The neighbours are still at loggerheads over a raft of contentious issues, including the exact position of the border, the status of citizens in one another’s territory and how much the landlocked South should pay to export its oil through Sudan. – Sapa-AFP