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NZ aid worker remains missing

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has confirmed a New Zealand aid worker remains missing more than five years after she was taken hostage in Syria.

Louisa Akavi was abducted on 13 October 2013 while working as a humanitarian aid worker with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). It is believed she had been held by ISIS from very early on since then.

“Throughout the past five years, the New Zealand Government and the ICRC have always worked on the basis that Louisa was alive and that hope still remains. We continue to work together to locate and recover her,” Mr Peters said.

“This has been a uniquely complex and difficult case. Louisa went to Syria with the ICRC to deliver humanitarian relief to people suffering as a result of a brutal civil war and ISIS occupation. Where a New Zealander is held by a terrorist organisation the Government takes all appropriate action to recover them. That is exactly what we have done here.”

“There has been continued commitment every step of the way over these years to ensure everything possible was being done without jeopardising Louisa’s safety. That has been, and remains, paramount in progressing efforts to find her,” said Mr Peters.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has led a significant and sustained whole-of-government effort. This has also involved a wide range of other agencies, and cooperation with international partners.”

“This effort has included the deployment of a small multi-agency team based in Iraq. This has involved members of the NZDF, drawn from the Special Operations Force, and personnel have visited Syria from time to time as required. This non-combat team was specifically focused on locating Louisa and identifying opportunities to recover her,” he said.

“We have now reached a point where all the territory once held by ISIS has been liberated. Unfortunately the current whereabouts of Louisa is unknown. However, the New Zealand Government continues to work tirelessly to locate her and bring her to safety.”

“Since her abduction, successive governments have not disclosed any information about Louisa and asked a number of media outlets not to do so either. In these situations the priority must be the safety of the hostage and we received clear advice that any publicity would place Louisa at even greater risk,” he said.

“The Government is very grateful for the co-operation of media outlets over many years in respecting this advice and undertaking not to publish. This has required careful consideration by these media organisations and we thank them for their principled approach.”

“We recognise the media context has changed with Louisa’s situation now public via international publications. However, this does not alter the fact that this is an ongoing situation and the New Zealand Government will continue to work to identify and develop any, and all, opportunities to find Louisa and bring her home. New Zealanders will appreciate that there is little further the Government can say about this at this point. Louisa’s well-being remains our primary focus.”

“Since Louisa was abducted, the Government has also focused on supporting her family. We cannot imagine what an enormous ordeal this has been, and continues to be, for them. They have displayed extraordinary courage and strength throughout the past five years.”

“Our thoughts are with them. It remains a very distressing situation, and no more so than now. We ask that their privacy be respected.”

“The efforts to locate and recover Louisa are ongoing, and there a number of operational or intelligence matters the government won’t be commenting on,” said Mr Peters.

Background timeline

The following timeline provides some general background to the history of Ms Akavi’s case.

March 2011The Syrian Civil War begins. By April 2019 it’s estimated that around 400,000 people have lost their lives the broader conflict, including a number of hostages.
April 2013The Islamic State of Iraq (previously the Al Qaida in Iraq) formally moves into Syria, announcing the creation of ISIS.
13 October 2013New Zealand International Committee of the Red Cross representative (ICRC) Louisa Akavi is abducted in northern Syria, along with other ICRC workers, while delivering medical supplies and undertaking health assessments in the area
14 October 2013The New Zealand Government advised of the abduction by the International Committee of the Red Cross
October 2013The New Zealand Government immediately establishes:
• regular co-ordination with the ICRC
• an all-of-government Watch Group process, tasked with finding and recovering Ms Akavi, in partnership with the ICRC
• regular contact with Ms Akavi’s family
The New Zealand Government response is led by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with substantial support from the New Zealand Defence Force, New Zealand Intelligence Community, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand Police and others.

The Government makes the early decision not to make the abduction public on advice that to do so would likely complicate any recovery or escape efforts and put Ms Akavi at even greater risk.

From the outset, the New Zealand Government and the ICRC work closely together with the objectives of achieving Ms Akavi’s safe return and supporting her family. The ICRC and New Zealand Government agree that the ICRC should take the initial “lead” in the early phases at least given the ICRC’s experience, track record and presence on the ground in Syria. This also reflects the ICRC’s role as Ms Akavi’s employer.

New Zealand also seeks immediate assistance from close international partners.

Early on, Ministers reconfirm New Zealand’s policy that the government does not accede to demands to modify its foreign, defence or security policies in response to terrorists’ demands, or pay ransoms. This policy continues to apply.

December 2013ISIS captures Falluja in Iraq
January 2014ISIS takes control of Raqqa, Syria and declares it the capital of the ISIS emirate
June 2014ISIS takes Mosul and declares a "caliphate" from Aleppo, Syria to eastern Iraqi province of Diyala
August – November 2014ISIS carries out a series of publicised executions of other western hostages.
August 2014New Zealand sends personnel to a coalition military base in Jordan for the purpose of collating information that might assist in locating Ms Akavi.
September 2014US and others launch the first air strikes against ISIS
From September 2014New Zealand and international media outlets start to learn of Ms Akavi’s abduction. As they do, each outlet that approaches the New Zealand Government agrees not to publish the story at the request of the New Zealand Government. Media attention would likely raise Ms Akavi’s profile amongst her captors and increase the risks to her.
September 2015Russia carries out its first air strikes in Syria
May 2016With ISIS starting to lose ground, and with the potential for better information flows from ISIS-held territory, the New Zealand Government deploys a small NZDF team to Iraq to gather and assess information that might help locate Ms Akavi.
Jan 2017With increased reports of Ms Akavi’s potential location, and with ISIS losing increasing amounts of territory, the New Zealand Government increases the size of the New Zealand’s presence on the ground in Iraq focused on locating and identifying for opportunities to recover Ms Akavi.

The team is also authorised to visit Syria from time to time as required. The doctrine of protection of nationals recognises that states have a right to protect their nationals in the specific circumstances that exist here.

This team is made up predominately of NZDF staff, and includes Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade staff from time to time. It has numbered up to 12 people and is focused on finding Ms Akavi. The team has been, and continues to be, a non-combat deployment.

July 2017Iraqi security forces retake Mosul from ISIS
October 2017Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces retake Raqqa from ISIS
October 2017The coalition government is formed and is briefed on the issue within days. The Government confirms officials should continue the operation to locate Ms Akavi.
Jan 2018 – March 2019Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) slowly pushes ISIS down the Middle Euphrates River Valley, gradually reducing its territory until its last stronghold remains a tiny enclave on the Iraqi border.
23 March 2019The SDF and US announce the territorial defeat of ISIS. The international community, however, acknowledges that the threat from ISIS remains, both as an insurgent force in Iraq and Syria, as well as internationally. While its leadership and funding streams are damaged, ISIS remains intact.

maps showing variation in IS control of Syria, restricted to only Baghuz in March 2019

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