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Kidnapped aid worker’s Toronto family relieved after daring rescue

THOMAS MUKOYA/REUTERS Four kidnapped aid workers arrive in Nairobi, Kenya, after their release Monday. From left: Qurat-Ul-Ain Sadozai of Gatineau, Que., Steven Dennis of Toronto, Astrid Sehl of Norway, and Glenn Costes of the Philippines.

Toronto Star
Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The daring rescue of four aid workers in Somalia on Monday brought great relief half a world away, to the Richmond Hill home of Peter and Carol-Ann Dennis, whose son was one of those freed.

“It was a happy ending and a lot of people worked together to make it happen,” said Peter, the father of Toronto aid worker Steven Dennis, who was kidnapped with three others in a brazen attack in Kenya’s largest refugee camp on Friday.

Dennis, 37, and the other aid workers landed in Nairobi after three days in the hands of an unknown group that attacked their Norwegian Refugee Council convoy at Dadaab refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Abdi Ali, a driver from Kenya, died and two others — a driver and a deputy manager for the non-profit aid group, also from Kenya — were injured.

For Dennis’s parents, it had been three long days without news of their son.

“Oh my goodness, you have no idea,” said Carol-Ann. “You have no idea.”

Dennis gave a thumbs-up to cameras at the airport in Kenya’s capital, while fellow Canadian Qurat-Ul-Ain Sadozai from Gatineau, Que., waved and smiled.

“We are happy. We are back. We are alive and we are happy this has ended,” said Sadozai, 38, as quoted by the Associated Press.

The other two hostages were Glenn Costes from the Philippines and Astrid Sehl from Norway.

Dennis’s parents spoke to him Monday and told the Star he was doing “great.”

“His spirits were really good — I think (he’s) tired,” said Peter. “He was well-treated . . . I think he probably wants a beer and a sleep.”

Rolf Vestvik, director of advocacy and information at the NRC, said Costes was shot in the leg but the wound is “not serious.” The others were not physically harmed.

“When it comes to their mental condition, it sounds that they are coping very well,” said Vestvik. “This has been an extreme experience, they have feared for their lives, but it sounds that they are quite OK.”

He said the two Canadians are veterans who have experience working in difficult, dangerous places. Sadozai worked as a country director in Pakistan before moving to Nairobi to serve as deputy regional director for the restive Horn of Africa region. She was on a day trip to Dadaab, which houses more than 460,000 refugees, with a group of high-level NRC delegates.

Dennis was based at the camp as a program support manager for the NRC. From 2002 to 2010, the engineer worked for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) in troubled regions such as Somalia, South Sudan and Ivory Coast. In a 2009 piece published in the Globe and Mail and MSF’s magazine, Dispatches, Dennis discussed the dangers posed by the job.

“I accept a degree of personal risk, because I can’t accept standing aside in the face of another person’s suffering,” he wrote.

Vestvik said the released workers are resting at a secure location in Nairobi. They will be debriefed and receive medical checks and trauma counselling.

The convoy was travelling without armed escorts despite widespread insecurity in the sprawling, dusty refugee camp. Plans for a security detail were cancelled at the last minute for fear it would attract attention, Vestvik told The Canadian Press.

When gunmen descended, shooting, on the convoy, one driver managed to speed away. Kidnappers seized the four foreigners left behind and drove for several kilometres before abandoning the vehicles and setting out on foot for the Somali border.

It is still unclear how the rescue was carried out. Reuters reported the Somali army rescued the aid workers in an overnight operation, with Kenyan military officials adding that it was a joint effort between the neighbouring countries’ forces. Abdinasir Serar, a representative of the pro-government Somali militia Ras Kamboni, told the Associated Press that his fighters pursued the kidnappers, catching up with them Monday about 60 kilometres inside Somalia. The captive aid workers were freed in a fight that left one kidnapper dead, said Ras Kamboni leader Ahmed Madobe.

Ras Kamboni works alongside Somali government and Kenyan military forces.

One group suspected in the abductions was Al Shabab, a Somalia-based group that merged with Al Qaeda earlier this year. But some analysts believe bandits looking for large ransoms snatched the foreign workers.

NRC has temporarily suspended some projects at Dadaab and will assess how to proceed after one of the “most serious” security incidents in its history, Vestvik said.

A spokesperson for Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade said the government is “elated” with the rescue and the high commission in Nairobi will support the freed Canadians. In an emailed statement, Jean-Bruno Villeneuve also thanked the Kenyan and Somali governments for their assistance.

Peter and Carol-Ann Dennis also expressed their gratitude to the governments involved in the rescue and the NRC for its support during the days their son was missing.

The ordeal had an unusually quick ending — kidnappings in the region often last for months. Two Spanish MSF workers were abducted in Dadaab in October and have yet to be released.

Security at Dadaab and in other parts of Kenya, including the capital, has been a concern since Kenya sent forces into Somalia last October to hunt Al Shabab.

Somalia’s ambassador to Kenya, Mohammed Ali Nur, said talks have been ongoing with Kenyan authorities to improve security at the camp.

“We’re here as guests of the government and they assured us they’ll send more troops,” he said in a Monday interview. “We’ve also talked to Somali refugees themselves and asked them to work closely with Kenyan authorities, and if they see people trying to come in armed, they should tell the authorities so they can be stopped.”


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