Chechens seek help to catch killers

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The Independent Online
ISOLATED AND incapable of exerting authority, Chechnya's president turned to Britain yesterday for help in solving the murders of three Britons and a New Zealander in his lawless republic.

Aslan Maskhadov said he believed that British security services could help to trace the abductors and killers of the telecommunications engineers, who were murdered this week in one of the most brutal incidents in Chechnya's post-war history. His invitation came as authorities in Grozny, desperate to demonstrate that they are exerting at least some authority, claimed they had obtained a full confession from one of the kidnapping gang.

They say the organiser of the kidnapping - named as Abdi Abilayev - was supplying information about the others involved, Russian television reported.

The invitation from President Mashkadov, reported by Moscow news agencies, is an acknowledgement of his own powerlessness to enforce security in Chechnya, where chaos and banditry has prevailed after its 21-month separatist war with Russia.

The Foreign Office said yesterday it was not aware of any formal request for help. "Any invitation will be considered in due course," said a spokesman. However, it is unlikely British investigators would take up any offer to travel to Chechnya.

"It is extremely unlikely that anyone would go. We have had all too graphic an illustration of just how dangerous Chechnya is," said a source.

Details of what led to the murder of the four engineers, Darren Hickey, Rudolf Petschi, Peter Kennedy and Stanley Shaw, whose severed heads were discovered on a roadside 40 miles from Grozny, remained scarce.

The men's employer's Granger Telecom and British Telecom, advised by security specialists Control Risks, were trying to negotiate a ransom when they were killed. BT was paying the Control Risks bill.

The friends and families of the victims said they were being bombarded by rumours. "At the moment we are still hearing all sorts of things and we don't know what to believe," said a friend of the Hickey family.

As an indication of the present situation in Chechnya, the republic's senior prosecutor, Mansur Tagirov - the man leading efforts to trace the kidnappers - was himself reported to have been taken hostage.

Mr Tagirov vanished on Thursday evening as he returned to the capital, Grozny, after attending a funeral at a nearby village. He later reappeared unharmed.

A spokesman for the British embassy said yesterday that Britain had obtained promises of assistance from Russian and Chechen officials in locating the bodies, and did not plan to repatriate the heads until the rest of the remains were found.

It is believed that the kidnappers were led by Arbi Barayev, a former Chechen field commander, and a devotee of Wahhabism - a radical Islamic sect with strong ties to Saudi Arabia.