Winston Peters accuses Red Cross of putting Louisa Akavi in more danger

by Jo Moir / 16 April, 2019

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has accused the International Red Cross (ICRC) of putting the life of New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi at increased risk by going public with her kidnapping.

The aid agency went public yesterday confirming that the 62-year-old was kidnapped by Islamic State in Syria in 2013.

For years, RNZ and other news media have agreed to keep her capture secret but the ICRC agency has now decided to appeal for information.

Mr Peters attacked the move, saying the release of Ms Akavi's story puts her in more danger.

At a post-Cabinet news conference, Jacinda Ardern refused to directly criticise the International Red Cross - known as the ICRC - but repeatedly stated that the government opposed its decision and made that clear to the agency.

"It absolutely remains the government's view that it would be preferable if this case were not in the public domain. For that reason I won't be commenting further on it.''

Ms Ardern said she understood the interest in the case, which was why the government released some details about the kidnapping but that was where the flow of information stopped.

She wouldn't comment on reports of a ransom demand, New Zealand's operation to try locate Louisa Akavi or even if she is still thought to be alive.

She wouldn't even say what message she had for Ms Akavi's family.

When the Red Cross expressed surprise that Ms Ardern didn't want Louisa Akavi's story to be told, Mr Peters came out swinging.

In a statement from his office he said the government was aware the ICRC was talking with the New York Times and advised at the "highest level of New Zealand's preference not to publish".

He said the government's view continues to be that the release of her story now "increases the risks to her life".

The foreign minister insists if there was any acknowledgement of Red Cross' media plan, "it was not an endorsement".

In stark contrast just an hour earlier the agency's Director of Operations Dominik Stillhart told media it would not have gone public without the government's support.

In a livestream from Geneva, Mr Stillhart went on to say he's surprised by what he's hearing now.

"When I woke up this morning and I saw that was the information that came out of New Zealand, I was slightly surprised. We had numerous discussions, we knew what we were doing, the decision was taken in full cooperation with the government,'' he said.

However, Ms Ardern told Morning Report the government has never changed its position on whether to go public with the case.

"We've been utterly clear, all the way through, that it was our preference that this would not be in the public domain.

"We've simply relied on advice around the reasons we've taken all the way through and that the New Zealand media have taken all the way through on not having this case in the public domain, and from our perspective that advice has not changed, that rationale has not changed."

The government did know of Red Cross' plans to release information on the case, but that was not an endorsement, she said.

"The International Red Cross took a different view, we continued to stay in touch with them in spite of the different perspectives, and we did know their plans to put the story out ... that wasn't an endorsement though."

She said she had also reconfirmed with officials that the government's position was clear and consistent throughout to ICRC.

"I've had it reconfirmed with several different individuals who've been involved that we've maintained absolute consistency.

"I have been reassured that there should have been no question over our position, the Red Cross has taken a different one and they've had a number of reasons for that."

Louisa Akavi was on her 17th mission, delivering medical supplies in Syria when the convoy she was travelling in came under attack and seven people were abducted.

Four were released the next day, but Ms Akavi and two Syrian drivers were not among them.

For her family it's been five-and-a-half years of not knowing her fate and not being able to talk about her disappearance.

Ms Akavi's kidnapping is the longest in the 156 years of the ICRC.

This article was first published on Radio NZ.

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