New Zealand revealed Monday that it had dispatched a special forces unit to Syria to search for nurse Louisa Akavi who was abducted by the Islamic State group more than five years ago.
Details of the kidnapping had been kept under wraps until the International Committee of the Red Cross appealed on Sunday for news about 62-year-old Akavi and two Syrian drivers kidnapped with her in October 2013.
They were in a Red Cross convoy delivering supplies to medical facilities in Idlib, northwest Syria, when armed men stopped the vehicles and abducted seven people. Four were released the next day.
New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said information about the kidnapping had not been previously released for fear that any publicity would place them at greater risk.
But he said it was believed Akavi was still held by IS and there were ongoing operations to locate her which included the deployment of a small multi-agency team based in Iraq.
“This has involved members of the NZDF (New Zealand defence force) drawn from the Special Operations Force, and personnel have visited Syria from time to time as required,” Peters said.
“This non-combat team was specifically focused on locating Louisa and identifying opportunities to recover her.”
The New York Times has reported the Red Cross has reason to believe she is alive, because at least two people described seeing her in December at a clinic in Sousa, one of the final villages to be held by IS jihadists.
Some of the witnesses said they saw her performing medical duties at clinics and hospitals under IS control, indicating that she was no longer held in a cell and was able to use her nursing skills to win a modicum of freedom.