Chechen president in hostage pledge

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THE CHECHNYA president has assumed full responsibility for the fate of three Britons and one New Zealander taken hostage on his territory, but has sharply criticised the Russian mogul who played a leading role in the recent release of two British aid workers.

Speaking to The Independent in Nazran, Ingushetia - a volatile north Caucasus republic only a few miles from the Chechen border - Aslan Maskhadov pledged to do everything possible to secure the men's release. "We are doing it, and we will go on working at it," he said.

The former separatist commander spoke one month after armed men abducted the telecommunications engineers - three from Granger Telecom and one who was on contract to British Telecommunications - from the Chechen capital of Grozny, only a few hundred yards from the headquarters of an anti- kidnapping unit. The four were working on a contract to supply the war- wrecked republic with a telephone system.

Looking drawn and weary - with little trace of the optimism that he showed after Chechnya's victory in the war with Russia - Mr Maskhadov spoke sadly of his lawless homeland as a "tragedy", but insisted every effort was being made to free the men. These included a hitherto unpublicised meeting in London last week between Foreign Office officials and a Chechen delegation, led by a deputy prime minister, Turpal Ali Atgireyev.

But although he praised the British government's official policy of refusing to pay ransoms, he had tart words for Boris Berezovsky, the Russian oligarch who played a pivotal role in the release last September of Jon James and Camilla Carr. "I was always strongly opposed to Berezovsky or anyone else coming here with suitcases of money to give to criminals. It raises their appetites and discredits my people and my state," Mr Maskhadov said.

The Foreign Office has denied that it paid a ransom for the aid workers' release; Mr Berezovsky, who is a regular visitor at the British embassy in Moscow, has admitted supplying computers but not cash to secure their freedom.

Mr Maskhadov was also critical of the hostages - Darren Hickey, 26, Rudi Petschi, 42, Peter Kennedy, 46, and Stan Shaw, a New Zealander - for failing to register with the Chechen authorities. He said his government was unaware they were in Grozny - despite the fact that the men were working for Chechen Telecom on a major project that requires official approval.

But, despite his pledges, Mr Maskhadov faces a raft of new problems, which threaten to deepen the Britons' predicament. Nine days ago, the head of Chechnya's anti-kidnapping unit was killed by a car bomb. Hundreds of people remain in captivity. And opposition to Mr Maskhadov -one of the few moderates in the republic - has been swelling to new levels.

His opponents now include the popular war hero Shamil Basayev, and two radical warlords - Salman Raduyev and Khunkar Israpilov. They were among several thousand Chechens who demonstrated in Grozny last month calling for his departure. Friday's meeting in the Caucasus with Russia's Prime Minister, Yevgeny Primakov, did little to ease his position. Although there were claims in Moscow of a "breakthrough", there was no sign that Russia would bend to Chechnya's central demand: total independence.