JUBA - The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) called Friday for the safe release of a South Sudanese staff member who it says was "taken at gunpoint" from Malakal airport by a group of eight men.
“We have not heard from our colleague for almost 24 hours, and we are extremely concerned about his well-being. WFP demands that his captors release our staff member unharmed,” Eddie Rowe, WFP’s Acting Country Director in South Sudan, said in a statement.
Bennett Kenyi, president of the UNMISS National Staff Association, told South Sudan in Focus on Thursday that the aid worker was waiting at Malakal airport for a U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) flight to Juba when he was taken away.
Witnesses reported that several men in uniform "just grabbed him from the line and took him away in a car," Kenyi said.
WFP said the men who snatched the worker were in plain clothes.
According to Kenyi, some witnesses said the men who snatched the worker were "national intelligence security agents" while others said they were members of a pro-government militia.
WFP said it is "working urgently to secure the safe release of its staff member." It called on the government of South Sudan and the country's security forces "to do everything within their power to see that the captured aid worker is freed quickly and uninjured."
Upper Nile Minister of Information, Peter Hoth Kwach, said Thursday the state has launched an investigation into the U.N. worker's disappearance.
"The government as well as U.N. agencies and UNMISS are working hand-in-hand to make sure that this situation is contained," Kwach said.
Aid workers targeted
The WFP staff member's disappearance is not the first time that aid workers have been targeted in Upper Nile state.
At least six aid workers were killed in Maban county in August, prompting the the United Nations and international aid agencies Acting to pull more than 200 staff members out of Upper Nile.
A pro-government militia group that calls itself the Mabanese Defense Force was accused of those killings. British Ambassador to the United Nations, Mark Lyall Grant, who was president of the Security Council in August, said attacks on humanitarian personnel "may constitute war crimes."