Government releases details about secret mission to save IS-abducted nurse Louisa Akavi

Now that New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi's name has been made public, the Government has released phenomenal, never-before-known details about the top secret mission to save her. 

New Zealand has boots on the ground in Syria - a special operations team made up of New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) troops, spies and diplomats.

And despite Islamic State (IS) demands for a ransom in exchange for Akavi's release, successive governments have remained steadfast in its no ransom policy.

The last place Akavi was seen alive was in Baghuz, the last IS stronghold in Syria. She was spotted in January treating and caring for the injured which could have included members of IS. 

"She's dedicated her whole life to providing care for the most vulnerable in a neutral and impartial way," Red Cross New Zealand secretary general Niamh Lawless said during a press conference on Monday. 

An elite New Zealand Special Forces team has been on the ground in Syria trying to rescue Akavi. And Newshub understands they were sharing intelligence with US-led forces to protect her from airstrikes. 

Asked if there was a risk she'd been caught up in the airstrikes in that area, Red Cross New Zealand head of crisis management John Dyer said: "We're not sure, the whole area is fluid, there's been a risk all along."

Louisa Akavi.
Louisa Akavi. Photo credit: Red Cross

Akavi was kidnapped in October 2013. The Government immediately established a watch group tasked with finding and saving her. 

In August 2014, New Zealand personnel travelled to Jordan to gather intelligence. And two years later in May 2016, a small special ops team travelled to Iraq. 

The team expanded in January 2017 to 12 members made up of non-combat SAS troops, intelligence agents and diplomats. They were given permission to cross the border - top secret boots on the ground in Syria. 

Asked on Monday if they are still there, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: "I simply will not comment any further on the case." 

Hostages are incredibly valuable to the Islamic State. In 2014, the United Nations estimated the terrorist group pulled in $57 million dollars in ransoms. 

The New York Times reported IS initially demanded a $1.8 million ransom for Akavi's release, which rose to $33.4 million, and then settled on $8.3million - the amount it wanted for other Western hostages. 

Ardern was asked how often IS sought a ransom from New Zealand, but again she said she could not comment. 

New Zealand - like the US and UK - has a cast-iron policy of not negotiating with terrorists. 

The official line is that it's Government policy not to pay ransoms, or accede to hostage takers or kidnappers' demands to modify New Zealand's foreign, defence or security policies.

Jacinda Ardern at her post-Cabinet press conference.
Jacinda Ardern at her post-Cabinet press conference. Photo credit: Newshub

But European governments like France, Italy and Spain do pay ransoms, and in the past have secured the release of hostages held by IS.  

After the beheading of American journalist James Foley in 2014, his mother said it was time for governments to change the "no ransom" policy. 

"I really feel that our country let Jim down," she told CNN at the time. 

The previous National-led government reconsidered the ransom policy after Akavi's kidnapping, but decided not to change it. 

Newshub understands the Government also briefly discussed it, but agreed on no change. Ardern said there are "no plans in that regard". 

Successive governments have also been in agreement that Akavi's name shouldn't have been published until she was safe. 

"Decisions have been taken that are not our own and I won't be commenting any further on decisions made by others," Ardern said. 

It was quiet fury from the Prime Minister.