After 14 dark months in a lawless land, freedom came in a private jet

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the key jailers responsible for imprisoning two British aid workers for more than a year in cold, damp cellars in Chechnya has been identified as an Islamic fundamentalist whose group has strong ties to Saudi Arabia.

Hostages Jon James and Camilla Carr, who were freed yesterday, are believed to have been held by kidnappers led by Arbi Barayev, an enemy of the Chechen government, and a radical Wahhabi leader.

The Chechen's involvement suggests that ransom money may not have been the main motive driving the gunmen, who seized the two Britons in July last year in the Chechen capital, Grozny where - braving an epidemic of kidnappings - they had gone to help treat children suffering from the trauma of recent war.

Politics and religious rivalry may also have lain behind their ordeal, which finally ended at 3am yesterday when one of their guards came into their cell and told them to "get going".

The couple, who flew into Moscow last night looking exhausted but elated, did not believe their ears. "We had heard all this before," said Ms Carr, "We just grabbed our bags and that was it." They said they had been constantly moved around Chechnya during their captivity, and had usually been imprisoned in cellars. "There wasn't much food for the first seven months, but they [their captors] did not have much either," said Ms Carr, 40, from Ross- on-Wye, Herefordshire. They ended up living with a Chechen family when supplies became more plentiful.

Details began to emerge last night of the shady figures who held them for more than 14 months. Arbi Barayev is a known opponent of Aslan Maskhadov, the President of Chechnya, and is known to have had ties with the republic's unpopular Moscow-backed puppet government which was overthrown during the Chechen war. The conflict ended in 1996.

Last night it was unclear whether Mr Barayev's group had controlled the couple throughout their captivity, or whether they passed them on to other kidnappers. "We know they were passed from group to group, but we have reason to believe that Barayev was involved," said Chris Hunter, head of the Centre for Peacemaking and Community Development, a Quaker- backed aid organisation, for whom the pair worked. Mr Hunter has played a leading role in efforts to secure their release.

Yesterday's events bring an end to more than a year of campaigning by Mr Hunter and by the couple's families and supporters, including former hostages John McCarthy and Terry Waite.

Until yesterday, the only concrete source of hope was three videotapes. In the last of these, broadcast by the BBC last month, the couple looked worn, thin and tense. They revealed that their hiding place was "hot" and without windows. They also said they could listen to the BBC World Service and expressed pleasure at the letters they had received from Britain. But there was a despairing undertone: "Don't make it too much longer," said Mr James croakily (he was used to whispering), "I don't know how much longer I'm going to stay sane."

It is believed that Mr Barayev's henchmen were holding the British pair in March, when Chechen anti-terrorist commandos embarked on a failed raid to release them from their darkened cell in Urus-Martan, 20 miles south of Grozny.

The rise of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist state religion of Saudi Arabia, in the Caucasus has become an issue of profound concern. Wahhabists were influential in the Chechen war, supplying money, medicines and ideology to the separatist cause. Since then tensions have been escalating with local Sufis, who resented the challenge to their own, semi-secular Islam by foreign fundamentalism.

The couple's abduction may have been an attempt by the Wahhabists to discredit the Maskhadov government, but it could also have been a trawl for funds. The Foreign Office has said that it paid no ransom for the couple's release. Nor, says Mr Hunter, did his charity or their families.

But money does appear to have been a factor. "There were figures being bandied around indirectly in Chechnya," said Mr Hunter. But it may be that Ms Carr and Mr James, 37, will never know the full story of the machinations that led to the release. In the last few weeks in Grozny, activity surrounding their case intensified, prompting the notorious renegade Chechen commander, Salman Raduyev, to predict their imminent release last week.

Among those energetically pressing their cause was the President of the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev. Boris Berezovsky, theMoscow oligarch who helped oust the last Russian government, was also a principle player. He has strong ties with the Chechens and is a former minister for the ex-Soviet republics. He accompanied the couple on their flight, along with a crew from ORT, the Russian television channel he controls.

Whatever dark dealings went on behind the scenes, they are certain to have been highly complex. Extracting captives from Chechnya is an exhaustive process, complicated by the difficulty that foreigners, diplomats included, have in visiting the republic. For most it is a no-go area, and no visitor ventures in without a Chechen armed escort. Nearly two years of war with Russia destroyed its infrastructure and reduced it to near-anarchy in which the abduction racket has been revived with a vengeance.

Abductions have been going on in the Caucasus mountains for centuries, and were used by the Chechens as an effective weapon during the war with Russia, in which they organised two mass-hostage takings on Russian soil.

When the war ended, kidnapping became big business for the scores of criminal groups who continue to operate in the republic. They seized journalists - including a Russian television star - aid workers, Russian soldiers and policemen, construction workers, and even Boris Yeltsin's personal envoy to Chechnya. Ransom demands, many of which were paid, have run to up to $3m (pounds 1.8m).

President Maskhadov, alarmed by the impact this was having on his efforts to secure international recognition and investment for his war-wrecked republic, struggled hard to snuff the practice out. But it is a tall order in a clannish society that is armed to the teeth, where bandits roam at large, and the concept of state-imposed law has never seriously developed.

The President, a former separatist commander, imposed curfews and dispatched his anti-terrorist unit to search for hostages, village by village.

Although he supported the Foreign Office's "no ransom" policy, the Chechen president did put some money on the table. In March he declared a $100,000 reward for information leading to the couple's release. It is not known if this cash has now been claimed.

Countdown

To Freedom

July 1997

Jon James and Camilla Carr are abducted at gunpoint by masked rebels in the outskirts of Grozny.

August 1997

The British Government refuses to pay a ransom, despite reports that three Russians and an Italian have been freed for around pounds 1.5m.

September 1997

The Foreign Office tells the hostages' families it believes they are alive.

December 1997

The families launch a campaign. Rumours that a release is imminent begin to circulate.

February 1998

Former Beirut hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy help publicise their plight. The first of three videos is released, but not publicly shown.

March 1998

Chechen commandos fail to free the Britons after a gun battle with the kidnappers leaves up to three dead.

April 1998

The families are shown a video in which they seem reasonably well.

July 1998

A candlelit vigil is held in Bath. Hundreds of postcards carrying a picture of the two are sent to the Russian Embassy in London.

August 1998

A two-minute video of the two, looking gaunt, is shown to the families then broadcast on British television.

September 1998

Chechen warlord Salman Raduyev indicates the Britons may get out soon. At 1.15pm yesterday news breaks of their release and the homeward journey begins.

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