Flicker of hope for Britons held in Chechnya

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THERE was a flicker of hope last night, albeit frustratingly slender, for two British hostages who have been held in Chechnya for more than seven months.

Quoting an unnamed source in the capital, Grozny, Russia's Interfax news agency said that Jon James, 37, and Camilla Carr, 40, may be freed before a four-day trip to London by the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, which begins next Monday.

The grizzled Chechen leader, a former military commander, had pledged to "mobilise the whole might" of his enforcement agencies to secure their release, it said. Among those efforts is an appeal broadcast on Chechen television from the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood.

The couple were abducted by six masked gunmen last July after arriving in Grozny to help children traumatised by the republic's 21-month war with Moscow. For months, the Foreign Office discouraged publicity for their plight, arguing that this could drive up any ransom demand. But its stance softened as their incarceration dragged on.

Pressure for openness was stepped up when former Beirut hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy rallied to their families' assistance. Last month the two men attended a well publicised 40th birthday party for Ms Carr in London.

Information about the couple's condition has been scarce, although two weeks ago the Chechen prime minister, Shamil Basayev, said that British diplomats have been given a video of the couple in which they requested warm clothes. The experience of other hostages seized in Chechnya - which has seen an epidemic of abductions in the last 18 months - suggests that the conditions are harsh. The British embassy in Moscow has refused to comment on the existence of a video, admitting only to receiving "different indications that the hostages are alive".

Yesterday's Interfax report implied that the couple may be freed as the Chechen authorities want to remove "all irritants" in the relations with London - a view that is based on the optimistic assumption that Mr Maskhadov has sufficient clout to secure their release. Despite his attempts at a crack down, kidnappings have continued apace, often in search of six- figure ransoms.

One issue is certain, though. Mr Maskhadov will visit London in an unofficial capacity as Britain does not recognise Chechnya's independence and is only willing to treat him as the leader of a Russian republic. But he will face a barrage of questions about the couple's safety.

n Boris Yeltsin tried a new move in his long, and so far fruitless, efforts to reform Russia's chaotic military yesterday by appointing a new head of his policy-making Security Council, and shaking up his defence agencies.

Andrei Kokoshin, 52, a former chief of the Defence Council, was appointed to replace Ivan Rybkin, a key intermediary in negotiations with the Chechens, who has been placed in charge of relations with the Commonwealth of Independent States after a government reshuffle.

Mr Yeltsin has also scrapped his once powerful Defence Council in the hope of coordinating military reform and policy.