Fears for kidnapped Briton

Click to follow
There was still no word yesterday from the kidnappers of two aid workers, one a Briton, a week after the men were seized in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Michael Penrose, 24, and a Frenchman, Frederic Marlardeau, 35, were bundled into a car by six armed men while driving to their city-centre office in the rebel Caucasus republic.

The pair were working for International Action Against Famine, a French aid group delivering food to citizens. News of the kidnap was not released by the aid agency until yesterday, for fear the captors would make unacceptable ransom demands. But so far there has been no trace of the pair and no one has claimed responsiblity. The motive for the abduction is unknown.

Russian-backed authorities in the region say they received an eye-witness report yesterday of the kidnap, and have set up a task force to search for the men.

The Foreign Office is in close contact with authorities in Moscow, but has refused to release any personal details about Mr Penrose. A spokesman said: "We are doing all we can to help."

Many humanitarian groups are at work in Chechnya, delivering aid to the thousands of citizens made homeless by the conflict. Fighting broke out in 1994 between separatists and Russian troops, who they regard as an occupying force. International Action Against Famine had been operating soup kitchens in Grozny and elsewhere in the republic since last November. The kidnap of two of their employees has renewed fears for the safety of all foreigners.

This is not the first time aid workers have been caught up in the conflict. Two workers with another French aid agency, Medecins sans Frontieres, were abducted by Chechen rebels last spring, but released two weeks later unharmed. It was not clear if a ransom had been paid. Three Russian Red Cross workers and a US relief worker who went missing in April last year have never been found.

Tension is at a new high in the republic, amid reports last week that one of the separatist leaders had been killed in the fighting. Rebel forces are rumoured to be poised to attack Grozny. Last night, Western embassies were reiterating warnings to steer clear of the region.