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New Zealand angered about Red Cross appeal for citizen missing in Syria

The nurse was abducted by IS militants five years ago [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 April, 2019

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Louisa Akavi was snatched along with Syrian drivers Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes while travelling in a Red Cross convoy delivering supplies to Idlib, the aid group revealed.
New Zealand said it is frustrated by an announcement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) that one of its citizens was abducted in Syria over five years ago, while she was working for the aid group.

Wellington said it was aware that the New Zealand nurse was missing and could still be alive. Local media were also familiar with Louisa Akavi's case but had agreed not to run the story due to the dangers it could put the aid worker in, Wellington added.

Akavi is believed to have been abduced by the Islamic State group in 2013 and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) revealed for the first time on Monday that she could still be alive.

It was the first public appeal for news of her whereabouts but said despite the New Zealand's charges that the announcement could endanger Akavi's life, they believed they had no other choice.

"Every decision was to maximise the chance of Louisa's freedom... and every decision was co-ordinated with the New Zealand Government," said Dominik Stillhart, Red Cross international director of operations.

Sensitive case

Akavi was snatched along with Syrian drivers Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes while travelling in a Red Cross convoy delivering supplies to Idlib in 2013, in the northwest of the country.

Armed men stopped their convoy on 13 October 13 2013, and abducted seven people, four of whom were released the following day.

The ICRC said it believed they were abducted by the Islamic State group (IS).

"Our latest credible information indicates that Louisa was alive in late 2018," the group said Sunday in a statement from Geneva.

"The ICRC has never been able to learn more details about Alaa and Nabil, and their fate is not known."

New Zealand said it disagreed with making the abduction public but did confirm it had dispatched a special forces unit to Syria to search for Akavi.

"This has involved members of the NZDF (New Zealand defence force) drawn from the Special Operations Force, and personnel have visited Syria from time to time as required," New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said Monday.

"This non-combat team was specifically focused on locating Louisa and identifying opportunities to recover her.

"The efforts to locate and recover Louisa are ongoing, and there are a number of operational or intelligence matters the government won't be commenting on," he said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed disappointment at the information released by the ICRC and refused to answer questions at her weekly press conference on Monday.

"It absolutely remains the government's view that it would be preferable if this case was not in the public domain," she said.

'Compassionate humanitarian' 

Peters said information about the kidnapping had not been previously released for fear that any publicity would place the hostages at greater risk, and New Zealand media outlets which knew Akavi had been taken hostage agreed not to publish the story.

"In these situations the priority must be the safety of the hostage and we received clear advice that any publicity would place Louisa at even greater risk," Peters said.

"The government is very grateful for the cooperation of media outlets over many years in respecting this advice and undertaking not to publish... and we thank them for their principled approach."

ICRC operations director Dominik Stillhart said it was an "extremely difficult time" for the families of the three.

"Louisa is a true and compassionate humanitarian. Alaa and Nabil were committed colleagues and an integral part of our aid deliveries.

"We call on anyone with information to please come forward. If our colleagues are still being held, we call for their immediate and unconditional release."

Akavi had carried out 17 field missions with the ICRC and the New Zealand Red Cross, the statement said. Rajab and Bakdounes were "dedicated husbands and caring fathers", it added.

A spokesman for Akavi's family, Tuaine Robati, said she knew the dangers she faced.

"She's been through tough times in her job before but she's stuck at it because she loves it," he said.

The war in Syria, which began in 2011, has claimed more than 370,000 lives and forced millions of people to flee their homes. 

The Kurdish-led SDF, backed by a US-led coalition, captured the last IS bastion in eastern Syria on March 23, and had detained thousands of suspected IS fighters.

But this could make it more difficult to find Akavi.

The New York Times has reported the Red Cross has reason to believe she is alive, because at least two people described seeing her in December at a clinic in Sousa, one of the final villages to be held by IS jihadists.

"We are speaking out today to publicly honour and acknowledge Louisa's, Alaa's, and Nabil's hardship and suffering," the ICRC statement said.

The organisation has 98 foreign workers and 580 Syrians working in the country.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights accuses IS of abducting thousands of people since 2014.

The so-called Islamic State group swept across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, self-proclaiming a "caliphate" that violently ruled the region.

In Iraq, the group lost its territorial hold in late 2017.

Last month, US President Donald Trump said that the Islamic State group has been "100 percent" defeated in Syria.

"The territorial caliphate has been eliminated in Syria," spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

The fate of the self-styled caliphate's leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has become a mystery for Iraqi and US-led forces, with rumours circulating in the past implying the group's leader was killed following American and Russian airstrikes.

US and Iraqi forces continue to hunt him down in the vast desert regions in Iraq's western and southern borders.

Earlier this month, US aircrafts dropped leaflets over Iraq offering a $25-million bounty in return for information that could lead to capturing or killing him.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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