Blair to discuss Chechen captives with Yeltsin

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The Independent Online
Between appearing in a soap opera, strolling in Red Square, and riding the Moscow metro, Tony Blair has some difficult business on his one-day visit to Russia today. Phil Reeves in Moscow says he should press the cause of two Britons being held hostage in Chechnya.

Diplomatic sources acknowledge that the Foreign Office has made scant progress in its efforts to free Camilla Carr and Jon James since they were abducted three months ago in Grozny, where they were providing aid to children traumatised by the 21-month war.

The Prime Minister will raise the case with the Russian leadership in the hope that they can bring pressure on the Chechen authorities to step up their efforts to track down and free the couple. His visit includes meetings with Boris Yeltsin and the top three ministers.

Even so, the chances of success are limited. The relationship between Moscow and Grozny has become increasingly strained recently, marred by haggling over an oil deal and continuing disagreements over the republic's desire for complete independence. Mr James and Ms Carr, from Ross-on-Wye in Herefordshire, were seized by masked gunmen in Grozny, where they had arrived several months earlier to work as volunteers in the Centre for Peacemaking and Community Development. Little information about them or their abductors has emerged; there has been no confirmed ransom demand.

Among the many difficulties facing British diplomats is the danger of visiting Chechnya, which has become almost a no-go area for outsiders following a rash of abductions of scores of Russians and a handful of westerners. Efforts to raise the issue directly with the Chechen leadership have proved fruitless; when Foreign Office officials questioned a Chechen minister who was visiting Moscow, he appeared to know little about the case.

Diplomats concede that it is doubtful that the kidnappers have wide access to the Western media. Moreover, the Foreign Office also has an official policy of refusing to pay ransoms, no matter how high or low. And in the past Chechen kidnappers have demanded huge sums of money in cases which have barely made the headlines. By hushing up the issue the Foreign Office has prevented the growth of public pressure for action - on the Russians, on Whitehall, and on the Chechens.

Mr Blair has other issues to attend to during his visit. He will meet Boris Yeltsin later today for discussions that are expected to include a British-Russian agreement to co-operate in the fight against international crime, to Nato expansion and British investment in Russia.

But, for the average Russian the visit offers a highlight far more gripping than anything emanating from the Kremlin: a cameo performance by Mr Blair in a radio soap. Playing himself, the Prime Minister will step out of a limo and pick up some shopping dropped by one of the leading characters.