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Red Cross Releases Name Of Nurse Taken Hostage; New Zealand Fears For Her Safety

New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi, pictured here in an undated photo, was captured in Syria in 2013. Her name was kept secret until Sunday.
International Committee of the Red Cross via AP
New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi, pictured here in an undated photo, was captured in Syria in 2013. Her name was kept secret until Sunday.

For more than five years, New Zealand kept secret the name of a nurse considered a hostage of the Islamic State.

Now Louisa Akavi's name is public.

The International Committee of the Red Cross hopes that releasing her name will lead to her rescue. But New Zealand's government sees it as a threat to her safety, Foreign Minister Winston Peters made clear on Tuesday.

Following Akavi's kidnapping in 2013 while she was working for the ICRC in Syria, news outlets around the world withheld her name and nationality. That changed on Sunday, after the ICRC published a plea for information on her whereabouts, using her name and sparking a back-and-forth between the humanitarian institution and New Zealand.

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the government would have preferred that "this case were not in the public domain."

The ICRC responded that it would not have made its decision without the support of the New Zealand government.

Now Peters says that claim is "balderdash."

He told reporters on Tuesday morning local time that the government opposed the public release of her name.

"It's not true," he said of the ICRC's response, according to The New Zealand Herald. "The reality is the media people we have worked with very closely ... all know we have been strenuous about keeping this secret in the interests of trying to preserve a chance to retrieve or save this woman, and that's still our view."

Peters said the government opposes any steps that might endanger the 62-year-old midwife and nurse or impede her release, The Associated Press reports. New Zealand also fears making her a high profile captive, and therefore increasing the odds that her captors would execute her for propaganda.

But the ICRC argued that naming her would raise the chances of receiving news about her whereabouts, following the collapse of the Islamic State.

Akavi was taken hostage while traveling in northwestern Syria, along with two Syrian nationals, Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes, according to the ICRC.

"Louisa is a true and compassionate humanitarian," said Dominik Stillhart, ICRC's director of operations, in the statement released Sunday. "Alaa and Nabil were committed colleagues and an integral part of our aid deliveries. We call on anyone with information to please come forward."

Akavi spent much of her life working across the world for the New Zealand Red Cross and the ICRC. She worked with Vietnamese refugees in Malaysia, promoted health and hygiene among local women in Afghanistan and survived a brush with death in Chechnya, when gunmen entered a hospital where she was sleeping and killed six people, the Herald reports. Her work also took her to Somalia, Ethiopia and Iraq, among other places.

In 2010, she told the community newspaper Kapiti Observer about working in Bosnia in the mid-'90s. She described entering the city of Tuzla and seeing Bosnians fleeing in the opposite direction.

"It's winter, it's snowing, it's cold," she said. "And I see on the road a child's doll, and then I see some shoes, and then I see all of these families, women and children with their heads covered and vests, probably the thickest vests they own, wearing boots and no gloves, their hands are bare, carrying everything they own."

Of her work, she told the paper: "I don't know why I still do it. It's something I do well. I know that I can make a difference, a small difference."

By 2013, Akavi was working in Syria, in a period of considerable military success and territorial expansion for the Islamic State.

That October, she was in a Red Cross convoy delivering supplies to medical facilities in Idlib, according to the ICRC. Gunmen stopped the vehicles and took Akavi, Rajab and Bakdounes — along with four other people who were released the following day.

ISIS demanded ransom from the Red Cross in fluctuating amounts, starting at under $1.1 million and rising at times to over $22 million, according to The New York Times. The ICRC told the Timesthat Akavi's captors answered proof-of-life questions, convincing the humanitarian institution that they were in fact holding the nurse captive.

According to the Herald, Akavi's captors also emailed her family in New Zealand demanding a ransom and threatening that media coverage would lead to her death.

That led to her name and nationality becoming a closely held secret. The de facto blackout was overseen for some time by then-Foreign Minister Murray McCully, who would speak with inquiring editorial staff and spell out the possible consequences of publication, the Heraldreports. When media outside of the country would publish her name, New Zealand's intelligence partners across the world would reach out and seek cooperation.

On Monday, Ardern thanked reporters for keeping Akavi's name under wraps.

"The decisions that have been made over a period of time by various outlets and journalists has not only been responsible, I think it's been exemplary," she said, according to the Herald."I'm sure I speak on behalf of successive governments when I say 'thank you.' "

Ardern also said that she hoped the misunderstanding wouldn't affect the ongoing search for Akavi or "undermine" the relationship between New Zealand and the Red Cross, the Herald reports .

It's unclear whether Akavi, Rajab and Bakdounes are still alive, though the ICRC said it had received "credible information" that Akavi was alive late last year.

"Following the fall of the last territory held by Islamic State group, we fear there is an extra risk of losing track of Louisa, though we remain hopeful this period will instead open new opportunities for us to learn more about her whereabouts and wellbeing," the ICRC wrote.

The ICRC said it has never been able to learn more details about Rajab and Bakdounes, and their fate is unknown.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Francesca Paris