Chechnya hostages' `bodies found'

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THE BODIES of three Britons and one New Zealander who were abducted and murdered in Chechnya have been found dumped on the edge of the republic's capital, according to reports in Moscow last night.

The Russian news agency Itar-Tass said that the Chechen authorities found the remains of the four telecoms engineers outside Grozny late on Friday, just under three weeks after the men's severed heads were discovered in a sack by a roadside.

The Foreign Office is trying to confirming the truth of the reports - which were attributed to a spokesman for the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov - and, if they are true, organising the release of the remains for their return home.

"There are so many rumours that we cannot comment on anything until we have checked the reports out ourselves," said a Foreign Office spokesman. In recent days a report has circulated in Moscow suggesting that the Chechens wanted payment for each body, while another said that they were using them as leverage to secure the release of a Chechen jailed in Grozny. Deborah Hickey, sister, of one of the victims, said it would be a great relief for their families if the bodies were recovered and brought home.

The engineers - Darren Hickey, Rudolf Petschi, Peter Kennedy and Stanley Shaw, the New Zealander - were abducted in October after going to Chechnya to install a mobile telephone system, despite Foreign Office warnings that the area was unsafe because of a rash of kidnappings. Their severed heads were found on 8 December.

Chechen officials and others have linked a notorious bandit and leader of a radical Wahhabi hostage-taking group, Arbi Barayev, to the kidnappings, but he has yet to be caught. Barayev, who is in his 20s, was shot several months ago, and is now on crutches.

The killings of the engineers caused revulsion and outrage in Britain and New Zealand, because of their savagery and because Chechens rarely assassinate foreign hostages.

But captives in the Caucasus have long been subjected to brutality. Three days after the discovery of the men's murders, a French UN refugee aid worker, Vincent Cochetel, was freed in a raid by Russian security forces in neighbouring Ingushetia.