The Red Cross has made a worldwide public appeal to find missing New Zealand nurse Louisa Akavi who was captured by the Islamic State in 2013.

But a war of words has erupted between the aid agency and the government over the decision to name the Kiwi hostage, who has been missing for five-and-a-half years.

The 62-year-old's five-and-a-half year kidnapping is the longest in the 156-year history of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Yesterday, the New York Times broke a cone of silence surrounding publication of Akavi's name. Islamic State had previously warned she would be executed if details of her capture were made public.


ICRC director of operations Dominik Stillhart said they thought they were close to winning her freedom back in 2017 .

But with the trail now cold her name was released yesterday morning in an appeal to maximise the chances of finding her and two fellow detainees.

"We won't give up hope to get them out alive."

Louisa Akavi, the Kiwi nurse missing in Syria. Photo / Supplied
Louisa Akavi, the Kiwi nurse missing in Syria. Photo / Supplied

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern refused to answer questions about Akavi's plight yesterday, or the government's response.

However, she expressed concerns over the Red Cross' decision to name the missing nurse, saying the government still believed doing so could endanger her life.

The Red Cross later expressed surprise at Ardern's position, with Stillhart telling media: "Every decision was coordinated with the New Zealand Government, with whom we have an excellent relationship, excellent cooperation, and that included the difficult decision now to go public."

In response, a spokesman for the Prime Minister later said New Zealand's objections were clearly made from the outset through the Foreign Minister Winston Peters' office to ICRC director-general Yves Daccord, as well as via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade post in Geneva.

He said the Government's acknowledgement of the ICRC's intentions could have been misinterpreted as support, but Stillhart's comments were inaccurate and "somewhat frustrating".


"They imply we were comfortable with going public, which we never were ... They should have been under no illusion."

In 2013, her terrorist kidnappers told her Porirua family she would be killed if news of her capture was made public.

Following this, the New Zealand Government sought out media at home and abroad to ensure details of her plight were kept secret.

Security forces have been unable to locate Akavi since the Islamic State territory was wiped out with the fall of Baghouz in eastern Syria last month.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during her weekly media conference at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern during her weekly media conference at Parliament. Photo / Mark Mitchell

However, at least two people described seeing the nurse in December at a clinic in Sousa, one of the final villages held by Islamic State.

In a statement, Akavi's family yesterday said they loved her and wanted her to come home.

"Our sister and aunt Louisa was taken in Syria in October 2013. Our family misses her very much and is concerned for her safety," they said.

"We think about her every day and hope she feels that and finds strength in that. We know she is thinking of us and that she will be worried about us too."

An elite New Zealand force of spies and defence force personnel were sent to the Middle East to work alongside United States counterparts in an attempt to find and rescue Akavi but have been unsuccessful.

She was among seven people captured in 2013 while returning to Damascus from Idlib, where the Red Cross provided supplied to a medical facility.

Four of the hostages were released the next day but Akavi and two Syrian workers were held.

The New York Times said negotiations occurred between the Red Cross and the terrorist group over the following months via text, phone calls and emails.

Islamic State initially demanded a ransom of €1m (NZ$1.67m) for the release of detained fighters.

The ransom later rose to €20m euros (NZ$33m) before falling again to €5m (NZ$8.35m) - on par with other Western hostages.

However, the New Zealand Government has a policy of not paying ransom demands, as is the policy for the Red Cross.

The Herald has been told Akavi was known to be held with - until at least September 2014 - American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who Islamic State reported killed by an air strike in 2015.

While most hostages were released in mid-2014, Akavi and others from countries who also had no-ransom policies remained in captivity.