Franklin Graham’s Boone-based Samaritan’s Purse says the eight aid workers who were kidnapped this week have been released and are safe.
The eight were not Americans, but were instead South Sudanese nationals, officials said.
"Samaritan's Purse is thankful to God for the safe release of our South Sudanese national staff, who had been detained by armed personnel in the Mayendit area of South Sudan. They were all released Tuesday afternoon local time,” said a statement released Tuesday by Samaritan’s Purse.
“There was no ransom request, and they are on the way to a safe location at this time. We are grateful for the World Food Programme’s support in helping us relocate our staff.”
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Rebels in South Sudan denied reports that their troops had abducted the eight aid workers. The news agency Reuters reported Monday that the kidnappers had demanded food as ransom.
However, South Sudanese rebels told media outlets in Africa that the kidnapping story was government “propaganda” and untrue. The eight aid workers lived in the Mayendit area, and were taken from a village near Mayiandit, about 420 miles northeast of South Sudan's capital city of Juba.
“We do not have any relation with this incident,” a spokesperson for the rebels told Sudan Tribune Monday, adding “This is a mere rumor spread by the government.”
The circumstances of the kidnapping remain unclear. Samaritan’s Purse says it has been distributing food to the people in the Mayendit area of South Sudan for over two years.
“We removed all relocatable staff two weeks ago as it became apparent fighting was going to begin. Those who were detained lived in the Mayendit area,” said a statement from Samaritan’s Purse.
“This situation highlights the severe famine situation in parts of South Sudan with over 4 million people at risk of starvation. Samaritan's Purse calls on all parties to stop hostilities and allow immediate full access to distribute emergency food supplies.”
The Citizen-Times, which is part of USA Today network, reported another group of opposition forces said the eight aid workers were “recovered,” rather than kidnapped.
“Local staff working for Samaritan’s Purse were recovered by our forces in Mayendit this morning after heavy fighting with enemy forces,” opposition spokesman Mabior Garang told The Associated Press. It was not made clear why the aid workers were being held.
The kidnapping of the eight aid workers is likely to hamper humanitarian efforts to assist civilians in a nation where years of a violent conflict have reportedly left over 100,000 people on the verge of facing starvation. At least 5 million people or more than 40 percent of the country’s population are in need of urgent food assistance, aid agencies say.
South Sudan is in the midst of what is called a “level 4 famine, says Samaritan’s Purse, which has called on all parties involved in the nation’s conflict to “immediately provide complete and unfettered humanitarian access in order to meet the needs of a starving population in order to save lives.”
“Violence and insecurity in the country have led to a rapidly deteriorating economy and have made it nearly impossible for civilians to plant and harvest crops,” Samaritan’s Purse says on its web site. “Typical livestock, such as chickens and goats, can no longer be found, as they’ve been used as a source of food for the community over the years of suffering. The cattle that do remain are thin and unable to produce enough milk for the people.”