A New Zealand Red Cross worker who was captured by the Islamic State in Syria is "an amazing human being" who "just wants help people", a close friend says.

New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi was named in the New York Times today as a hostage of the terrorist group, with confirmation from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - ending a media agreement not to name her for safety reasons.

Akavi's fate and whereabouts are unknown but the Times quotes the Red Cross as saying they believe she is still alive.

Her friend Avril Patterson, who is the health coordinator for the Red Cross in Yemen, said she had arrived in Syria the day after Louisa was abducted on October 13, 2013.

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"I was told that she had been waiting for me and that she was going to cook me dinner," she said.

"Of course that dinner never happened.

"If I could speak to her now, I'd tell her: 'You owe me dinner.' We all miss her and think about her every day. She's not once been forgotten."

Akavi, a Cook Islands New Zealander, has carried out 17 missions for the Red Cross around the world. Patterson first met her while on mission with the ICRC in the Philippines in 2010.

"Louisa is incredibly tough, resilient and has a sharp sense of humour," Patterson said.

"She's a no-nonsense nurse who just gets on with the job. She's humble and doesn't look for the limelight, she just wants to help people. As nurses, we don't care where people are from, what their politics are, or what they may have done in the past. We just want to help people. And that's Louisa all over. She is an amazing human being.

"She garners respect with everybody she meets. She can be quite chatty and outgoing, and is never afraid to tell it how it is. People love that about her – her pragmatism and no-nonsense. But equally she knows when to be calm, when to talk, when not to talk. And she is always respectful of other people. She's just one of these people – when you meet her, you want to be just like her."

After meeting in the Philippines, Patterson and Akavi were reunited in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, and were set to work together again in Syria.

"I remember when I arrived in Afghanistan," Patterson said. "She was just about to leave and she told me: 'Avril, don't take any nonsense from these boys,' because I was going to be the only female expat in the office after she left. But amid that toughness, she is also incredibly kind and humble.

"She loves being out in the field, not because she enjoys the hardship, but because that's where she can talk to people to really understand what they need. It's where she feels most useful and where she can really feel the impact of her work."

The New York Times article effectively ended a media agreement with the New Zealand Government not to identify Akavi or her nationality for fear that she would be killed by her captors.

Islamic State territory was wiped out with the fall of Baghouz in eastern Syria last month, but security forces have not yet been able to find Akavi or get confirmation of whether she was still alive.

A Syrian fighter walks past destroyed vehicles in the final Islamic State encampment in Baghouz, Syria, last month. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty
A Syrian fighter walks past destroyed vehicles in the final Islamic State encampment in Baghouz, Syria, last month. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty

It is possible she is among the thousands in camps but has not identified herself or is still a captive being held elsewhere.

The Red Cross is appealing for information about her and two other Syrian staff members, Alaa Rajab and Nabil Bakdounes. They were abducted when they were travelling in a Red Cross convoy to deliver supplies to medical facilities in Idlib in north-western Syria.

Armed gunmen took seven people hostage, four of whom were released the next day.
The ICRD has since made repeated efforts to have her released, including negotiations with Akavi's captors. Its latest credible information is that she was alive in late 2018.

She has now been held hostage for longer than any worker in the Red Cross' 156-year history.

"It is emotionally wrenching that a person so dedicated to helping others would have her freedom taken from her for so long," said ICRC's director of operations Dominik Stillhart.

"The past five and a half years have been an extremely difficult time for the families of our three abducted colleagues.

"Louisa is a true and compassionate humanitarian. Alaa and Nabil were committed colleagues and an integral part of our aid deliveries.

"We call on anyone with information to please come forward. If our colleagues are still being held, we call for their immediate and unconditional release."

The Red Cross fears there is an extra risk of losing track of Akavi since the Islamic State lost its last territory, though it also hopes that it will open up new opportunities to learn more about her whereabouts and her wellbeing.

"We are speaking out today to publicly honour and acknowledge Louisa's, Alaa's, and Nabil's hardship and suffering," Stillhart said.

"We also want our three colleagues to know that we've always continued to search for them and we are still trying our hardest to find them. We are looking forward to the day we can see them again."