Chechen Hostages: Bungled rescue may have led to beheading of British hostages

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THE DECAPITATED remains of four men, almost certainly the telecommunication engineers kidnapped two months ago in Chechnya, were discovered yesterday amid reports that local security forces had bungled a rescue attempt just hours earlier.

British officials in Moscow were trying last night to arrange for a positive identification of the remains, discovered yesterday morning on a windswept roadside in a village on Chechnya's eastern border. The four men were kidnapped in the capital city, Grozny, while working in the separatist Soviet republic, against strong advice from the Foreign Office.

Yesterday Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, promised that he would do everything he could to find out what had happened. "We will work hard to find the truth," he said. "We need to know what happened and what is being done to bring to justice those who committed such repugnant murders."

However, The Independent has learnt that in recent months the Foreign Office had, with the approval of the hostages' families, handed over day- to-day running of efforts to secure the release of the men to Granger Telecom, the company employing three of the engineers. It, in turn, had hired the specialist security consultant Control Risks for advice about securing the release. Last night Control Risks refused to comment on its involvement in any rescue effort. And Granger refused to comment on a ransom fee reported to be about pounds 4m.

The engineers were Darren Hickey, 26, of Surrey; Peter Kennedy, 46, of Hereford; Rudolf Petschi, 42, of Devon and Surrey-based New Zealander Stanley Shaw, 58. They had been working in Chechnya to install satellite and mobile-phone links.

At the time of the kidnap, both Granger and British Telecommunications - which was employing Mr Kennedy - defended the decision to work in Chechnya, a country the Foreign Office "strongly advises against" travelling to. The chief executive of Granger, Raymond Verth, said it was a "risk worth taking" for a deal worth a reported pounds 190m.

In a statement issued yesterday, Mr Verth said: "We are devastated to hear the news of the deaths of the four hostages. Their murder is an appalling and barbaric act... We were especially shocked by this horrific news, as we were making every effort to secure the safe release of the hostages. We had opened a dialogue with the kidnappers and received confirmation that the hostages were alive as recently as last week."

Attention turned last night to reports that the men may have been killed after a bungled rescue attempt by Chechen security forces. Mr Verth said they were not aware in advance of any rescue attempt, although reports from Grozny on Monday claimed that the security forces knew where the hostages were.

An official source in Grozny said: "The whole place is awash with rumours at the moment. No one knows why the men were executed. It is certainly a new development, because hostage-takers here have not done this before."

A further report from Grozny last night suggested that a kidnapper had been captured. Official sources said Britain had not been involved in a rescue attempt.

In Britain, as news of the discovery emerged, the families of the victims were said to be numb with grief. Eamonn Hickey, the father of Mr Hickey, reacting to early unconfirmed reports that four bodies had been found, had said he was "hoping and praying" that they turned out to be baseless rumour.

He said that all the four families had recently had brief satellite telephone conversations with their missing relatives and his son's only complaint was that he was hungry. Mr Hickey said: "It was a call full of hope."

As more details emerged a family friend, speaking at the pub run by the Hickeys in Thames Ditton, Surrey, said: "Like everyone else involved, they are in a state of deep shock."

Yesterday, as officials in Chechnya promised to name the guilty men later today, the President, Aslan Maskhadov, blamed "foreign special forces" and their Chechen agents for carrying out the killings. He said the aim was to provoke more violence and hinder his attempts to build relations abroad.

The Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, called for tougher security. Speculation turned to the future of a country not recognised by the rest of the world but clearly beyond the control of Russia.

The kidnap of the four men came just two weeks after the British aid workers Jon James, 40, and Camilla Carr, 38, were released after being held hostage in Chechnya for 14 months.