Jacinda Ardern Questions Red Cross’s Decision to Name Nurse Held by ISIS

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — A rift emerged Monday between New Zealand’s government and the Red Cross over the humanitarian organization’s decision to name a New Zealand nurse who was kidnapped by the Islamic State five years ago — and who her employer believes could still be alive.

The divide was another twist in the unusual story of the lengthy captivity of Louisa Akavi, which was kept secret for years by a government and an employer initially in lock step about the need to stop it from becoming public. If she is still alive, she would be the longest-held hostage in the 156-year history of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Ms. Akavi, 62, is a nurse and midwife who was abducted in late 2013 in the northwest Syrian city of Idlib along with two Red Cross drivers who are Syrian nationals. She was most recently sighted, according to Red Cross officials, in December at a clinic in Sousa, one of the final villages held by the Islamic State.

The Red Cross said it had named Ms. Akavi with the New Zealand government’s support in hopes of receiving information that could lead to her safe return. The timing was now right, the group said, after the Islamic State lost its last shred of territory in Syria last month.

But Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, on Monday deplored the decision by Ms. Akavi’s employers, and a government spokesman said it had put her in greater risk.

“Our preference, of course, is that the case not be in the public domain,” Ms. Ardern told reporters Monday, while refusing to comment on Ms. Akavi’s plight.

In carefully worded remarks at a news conference, during which she repeatedly declined to answer questions, Ms. Ardern did not mention Ms. Akavi’s name, or the name of any country or group.

Dominik Stillhart, the director of operations for the Red Cross, said he was “slightly surprised” by Ms. Ardern’s remarks.

“We would not have made that decision without the support of the New Zealand government,” he said about naming Ms. Akavi.

He added that the “difficult decision” was made after six or seven weeks of discussion with New Zealand officials — most recently at an in-person meeting on Friday — and that he believed the Red Cross’s action was “taken in full cooperation” with those involved.

The decision to name Ms. Akavi ended an especially strict, five-year media blackout in which news outlets agreed not to publish her name — or even reveal that a New Zealander was being held by the Islamic State.

Her capture prompted secret missions by a New Zealand special operations team to look for her, New Zealand’s foreign minister, Winston Peters, revealed Monday. Up to 12 people — including defense and foreign affairs staff members, working in a “noncombat” capacity — were making “ongoing” efforts from a base in Iraq to secure Ms. Akavi’s release, he said.

Louisa Akavi, a nurse from New Zealand who worked in Syria, was abducted by the Islamic State in October 2013.CreditInternational Committee of the Red Cross

A spokesman for Mr. Peters rejected the Red Cross’s assertion that it had revealed Ms. Akavi’s name with the Ardern government’s support.

The spokesman said by email that the government had advised the organization, “at the highest level, that New Zealand’s preference was not to publish.”

“The New Zealand view then, and continues to be, that the release of her story now increased the risks to her life,” the spokesman said.

Ms. Akavi had been traveling with six colleagues in a convoy marked with the Red Cross emblem in October 2013 when they were stopped at a checkpoint by gunmen. The following day, four of the aid workers were freed, but Ms. Akavi and the two drivers, Nabil Bakdounes and Alaa Rajab, remain missing.

In early 2014, according to Red Cross officials and others held with Ms. Akavi, she was imprisoned outside Raqqa with other Western hostages, including Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker whom ISIS reported killed in a 2015 airstrike.

The Islamic State initially communicated with the Red Cross, providing proof that Ms. Akavi was alive and demanding fluctuating amounts of ransom, but her employer was not able to secure her release. By mid-2014, most of the hostages held with Ms. Akavi had been released, after ransoms were paid by their governments, families or employers.

But a small number of American and British citizens, whose countries, like New Zealand, have a strict policy of refusing to pay ransoms, remained. All but one of them, including the American journalist James Foley, were beheaded that year.

The messages from the Islamic State about Ms. Akavi stopped in 2014, but between 2016 and 2018, Red Cross officials received reports of sightings of her in Syria, including from people she had treated.

The news that she had been sighted in December 2018 at a medical clinic in Sousa was “incredible information to receive,” Mr. Stillhart said.

“She was still doing what she is trained to do and has long done: providing medical care in a conflict zone.”

Ms. Akavi, who was born in the Cook Islands and had lived in New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, was on her 17th deployment with the Red Cross since 1987, many of them in conflict zones. She survived a massacre of six of her colleagues by a gunman near Grozny, Chechnya, in 1996 by hiding in a locked room.

Mr. Stillhart maintained Monday that the decision to name her and her colleagues had been the right one.

“From the moment Louisa and the others were kidnapped,” he said, “every decision we made was to maximize the chances of winning their freedom.”

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