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Rescued aid workers were aware of risks: officials

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NAIROBI, Kenya -- Two Canadians among the four aid workers kidnapped during a deadly attack in Kenya last Friday were seasoned veterans of the business of helping the world's poorest people, and knew the risks they faced, says one of their organization's directors.

The aid workers were rescued Monday from inside Somalia in a daring mission in which one of their captors was killed.

"The places where the refugees are in need of humanitarian aid are very often high-risk areas," said Rolf Vestvick, director of advocacy and information for the Oslo-based Norwegian Refugee Council.

"So it is something that everybody working in this business is aware of."

In fact, Qurat-Ul-Ain Sadazai of Gatineau, Que., has spent years in some of the world's most troubled regions.

The unassuming 38-year-old Pakistani-born woman had just returned to Kenya in February to take on the role of deputy director of the NRC's operations in Somalia and Kenya. She had worked there from 2007 until 2010, leaving for a couple of years to head up the agency's operations in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Steven Dennis, 37, was relatively new to NRC, having worked for the agency in Kenya for the past year. But the tall, dark-haired Toronto native, too, had a lengthy background in humanitarian work with other agencies, including Doctors Without Borders.

Sadazai and Dennis, along with Astrid Sehl, 33, of Norway, and Glenn Costes, a Filipino and oldest of the group at 40, were kidnapped at gunpoint from Kenya's sprawling Dadaab refugee camp.

Smiling and waving as they touched the ground, all four arrived back in Kenya's capital aboard a military helicopter on Monday after a pro-government Somali militia group rescued the four inside Somalia.

"We are happy. We are back. We are alive and we are happy this has ended," Sadazai said after the group landed in Nairobi.

They were lucky to be alive. Their Kenyan driver, Abdi Ali, was killed when four gunmen attacked their two-vehicle convoy on Friday. Two other local NRC employees were injured. The gunmen took one of the two vehicles and the four workers. The group later abandoned the vehicle and began walking toward the Somali border.

The aid group originally arranged to have armed security travel with the convoy, but the security arrangements were cancelled at the last minute over concerns that armed guards might attract unwanted attention.

"Convoys which have these armed escorts... (are) more likely to be attacked by roadside bombs," said Vestvik in explaining why the decision was made.

After an attack on a Doctors Without Borders convoy last year in which two Spanish women were abducted, some aid groups began using security escorts in Dadaab, a series of sprawling camps connected by sandy roads.

Canadian officials expressed relief at news of the rescue Monday and thanked officials in Kenya and Somalia for their help in handling the crisis.

"We are elated by the safe rescue of Canadian citizens taken hostage in Kenya," a spokesman for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada said in an email.

Jean-Bruno Villeneuve said the High Commission in Nairobi would provide support for the Canadian workers.

Elisabeth Rasmusson, the aid group's secretary general, told a news conference in Oslo, the Norwegian capital, that she was relieved the four had been released.

Rasmusson was present during Friday's attack but was not harmed or taken. She said Friday that the attack happened on a main road toward the city of Dadaab in "what is recognized as the safe part of the camp." Dadaab is the world's largest refugee camp with a growing population that has swelled recently to roughly 464,000 people.

-- CP, with files from AP

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 3, 2012 A9

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