Two members of the United Nations panel of experts for the Democratic Republic of Congo kidnapped on Sunday are still missing, Congolese Communications Minister Lambert Mende told VOA Monday night.
A statement issued earlier by the DRC government revealed that Michael Sharp, an American, and Zahida Katalin, a Swedish citizen, as well as four Congolese nationals accompanying them, "had fallen into the hands of negative forces which have not yet been identified" in the province of Kasai Central.
"The administrative and security forces are working in concert with MONUSCO [the U.N. mission in the DRC] to secure the liberation of the kidnapped people," the statement concluded.
On Monday night, Mende told VOA that Congolese security forces and MONUSCO spent the day using helicopters to look for the six abducted individuals, but were unable to locate them. He confirmed the aerial search parties will start again Tuesday morning.
"Other security forces are on foot scouring the area," Mende said.
VOA was unable to reach U.N. spokespeople in the DRC, but a short statement confirmed that two members of the panel of experts were missing and the U.N. is doing everything possible to locate the experts.
For the last eight months, conflict between the DRC's security forces and militiamen has been intensifying in the Kasai region. In August of last year, the Congolese military killed a customary chief, known as Kamwina Nsapu, who had rejected the state's authority and instructed his supporters to drive out the security forces. A militia of his followers, also called Kamwina Nsapu, is now active in the three provinces of Kasai and Lomami Province.
More than 400 people have been killed and 200,000 displaced by the violence, according to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The U.N. has condemned both the militia for its use of child soldiers and the government for deploying excessive force, including automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades. On March 8, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees referred to "recurrent reports of grave violations" in the four provinces and the discovery of mass graves before urging the Security Council to establish a commission of inquiry.
It is not known at this stage whether the kidnappers are connected to the militia.
U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer in New York contributed to this report.