Rebels hold 3 peacekeepers in Sudan's Darfur

February 20, 2012 - 5:05 PM

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Three civilians with a joint United Nations/African Union peacekeeping force are being held by rebels in Sudan's Darfur and accused of being spies, a spokeswoman for the mission said Monday.

A group of 55 peacekeepers including 50 Senegalese troops were blocked by the rebel Justice and Equality Movement on Sunday from passing through a village in northwest Darfur, UNAMID spokeswoman Susan Manuel said.

While most of the group was allowed to move ahead on Monday, three including a Yemeni policeman and two Sudanese translators were kept behind, she said. Sudan's state news agency reported that the civilians held captive were from Yemen, Ghana and Rwanda. It's unclear what caused the discrepancy.

"We are constantly in touch with the movement (to secure their release) and have a lot of forces in the area," she said. "I can assure that our staff are not spies."

She said claims by the JEM that they had seized all 55 peacekeepers Monday afternoon were not true.

"It really wasn't quite that dramatic," she said.

Sudanese army spokesman Col. Sawarmy Khaled was quoted by Sudan's state SUNA agency on Monday saying that the JEM was trying to give the impression that the situation in Darfur was unstable. The JEM has not joined other groups in signing a peace deal with the government.

UNAMID deploys around 20,000 people in Darfur, 8,000 of whom are troops and another 5,000 are policemen. It is the largest peacekeeping force in the world and its forces conduct an average of more than 200 patrols a day, according to the mission's website.

The Darfur conflict began in 2003, but has largely tapered off since 2009. The U.N. estimates up to 300,000 people died and 2.7 million have been displaced due to the conflict.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued an international arrest warrant for Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir for his alleged role in crimes against humanity in Darfur.

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Associated Press writer Aya Batrawy in Cairo contributed to this report