PORT-AU-PRINCE — The first kidnappings of aid workers in Haiti jolted the thousands-strong foreign relief operation in the quake-torn nation Thursday, adding to the staggering challenges it faces two months after the country’s deadly disaster.
Two European women workers with the French-based aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) were released early Thursday, unharmed, MSF told AFP.
They had been held for nearly a week, but their abduction had been kept secret so as not to “complicate” negotiations to free them, MSF spokesman Michel Peremans said.
He added that “we are immensely relieved” at their liberation, but would not go into details nor give the identities or nationalities of the two.
The women’s kidnapping on Friday last week as they were driving through Petionville, a relatively upmarket neighborhood in Port-au-Prince where most aid groups and many foreign media are based, was unprecedented since the January 12 earthquake.
It served as an alarm to the thousands of aid workers who have poured into Haiti to help its population cope with the aftermath of the disaster, which killed more than 220,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless.
“This is the first case since January 12,” the head of Haiti’s police anti-kidnapping unit, Francois Dossous, told AFP.
He added that the two women were being questioned Thursday by his squad to determine the identity and location of their abductors.
A spokesman for the UN stabilization mission tasked with imposing security on Haiti’s streets, David Wimhurst, said many of the aid groups had their own security officers who could access UN advice on “precautions that are useful to protect against kidnapping, or other threats.”
He noted, however: “Our security advice is not public information. There is little point in telling would-be aggressors through the media how we go about protecting ourselves.”
MSF, which has its own security detail for its 400 foreign workers overseeing 3,000 Haitian employees, said it was evaluating the situation for its workers, whose safety it stressed was paramount.
“It’s very important for us. We want to keep working in Haiti,” Peremans said.
Peremans would not identify the abductors. He also would not say if MSF had paid the kidnappers, but emphasized that “it is not our policy to pay ransoms.”
A Swiss media outlet, TSRinfo.ch, reported that one of the women was Belgian and the other was Czech, and both worked for the Swiss branch of MSF.
TSRinfo said that the two were grabbed with their Haitian driver, but he was quickly released and raised the alarm.
Haitian police and foreign security contractors have in recent days spoken of increased danger posed by thousands of hardened criminals who escaped the main prison in the capital during the earthquake.
Most of the convicts are believed to be hiding out in Cite Soleil, a city slum devastated by the quake, where police and UN peacekeepers struggle to impose the law.
But Wimhurst, the UN mission spokesman, said the abductions should not give rise to an “exaggeration” of the security risk in Haiti.
“In spite of this recent limited spate of kidnappings, number are well below last year’s figures at the same time, or any other time for that matter,” he said.
Nevertheless, the added risk piled on extra challenges to the foreign-led aid effort in Haiti.
“We recognize that we have a lot to do,” Kristen Knutson, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told reporters.
Important programs have largely stabilized the situation in terms of food, water and shelter, she said.
But currently nearly half of Haiti’s homeless still need emergency shelter before the onset of Haiti’s extremely heavy rainy season in the next few weeks.
OCHA said the aim was to have all of them under cover of tents or tarpaulins by the end of April.
Aid groups and the Haitian government are also struggling to persuade those in low-lying camps — which will be flooded when the rains come — to move out, either back to their homes if they still stand, or stay with friends, or resettle in a few safer sites identified outside the capital.
Although diseases have been kept largely in check, Knutson acknowledged that malaria was on the rise — and would rise further as rains boosted mosquito populations.
Of the 1.4 billion dollars the UN appealed for in February, just half has so far been committed, OCHA said in a statement.
“Additional funding is urgently required,” it said.