3 Russian pilots snatched in Darfur freed by Sudanese forces

KHARTOUM, Sudan (AP) — Three Russian pilots snatched by gunmen in Sudan's restive Darfur region were freed by security forces after a clash with their kidnappers, the governor of the province told state media Tuesday.

Abdel-Hameed Moussa Kasha told the official Sudan Media Center that security forces fought with the kidnappers late Monday night before freeing the men, who worked for a company transporting food for the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur.

The men were grabbed on Sunday after leaving the airfield in Nyala, the provincial capital of South Darfur province, and soon afterward the military said they had identified where they were being held.

Military spokesman Sawarmy Khaled originally said there were only two pilots.

The abduction came a month after another Russian pilot was kidnapped by janjaweed militiamen in the western Sudanese province after he had to make an emergency landing of his helicopter. That pilot was also eventually recovered.

Darfur has been in turmoil since 2003, when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum, claiming discrimination and neglect.

Khartoum is accused of retaliating by arming local nomadic Arab tribes and unleashing militias known as the janjaweed on civilian populations — a charge the government denies.

The U.N. estimates 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million have been displaced by the conflict.

Recently, the vast arid western region has been more stable, but since elections in April there have been a rash of kidnappings, many directed against aid groups, including the International Red Cross.