Gunfire was so common no one noticed they had been snatched

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THERE ARE few cities in the world where a late-night gunfight involving gangs of armed men would simply be ignored by the police.

Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, is such a place.

The four telephone engineers from Britain captured over the weekend were reportedly staying just 500 metres from the headquarters of the newly formed anti-kidnapping unit when the abductors burst in. Police in Chechnya said the engineers' bodyguards exchanged fire with the kidnappers, injuring one of them, but were unable to prevent them dragging the men away.

Apparently, police did not react to the sound of gunfire because it is so common place.

Last night, as details about the kidnapping remained unclear, focus turned to why the men were working in a country which, for a long time, the Foreign Office has strongly advised against visiting. "We knew the men were there and regularly warned them about the situation in Chechnya and our travel advice, which is not to go there," said a spokesman.

Three of the engineers were employed by Granger Telecommunications, a international company based in Weybridge, Surrey, which was contracted by Chechnya Telecom to install satellite phone links. The company last night confirmed the names of the men but declined to provide further details. "We are in touch with the Foreign Office and the authorities in Chechnya," said a spokesman.

He confirmed that the men were staying in a residence in central Grozny provided by the company and that bodyguards had been hired to protect the men. He was unable to give details about the number of bodyguards the company had provided for its employees. "Sorry, that is information I did not have," he said. It is understood, however, that this is the first time the company has had any problems with kidnappers.

The fourth man, Peter Kennedy, had been contracted for 12 days by British Telecom. He had been ringing Britain every day to test the satellite equipment. He last called on Friday and when he failed to make contact on Saturday the company immediately became concerned and began to make its own inquiries. "We take security issues very seriously. The employee was registered with the authorities in Grozny," said a spokeswoman.

Yesterday, General Shaid Bargishe, the head of a special police anti- kidnapping unit in Grozny, said: "We are busy investigating this case and we hope to free the men."

He said that several of the kidnappers and bodyguards had been injured in the gunfight and that one of the kidnappers had been taken to hospital in Urus Martan, a city south of Grozny, for treatment. He said police had gone there to question him.

General Bargishev said the four men had been working in Chechnya for about a year, travelling to and from the republic regularly. He said they had been due to leave once again today.

The acting Chechen Foreign Minister, Movladi Udugov, said that the kidnapping was intended to increase tension in Chechnya. He said that was a goal of unspecified forces within Russia itself.

The Chechen prosecutor, General Mansur Tagirov, said he thought the kidnapping was aimed at discrediting Aslan Maskhadov, the President. He ruled out ransom as a motive, something perhaps given credence by the fact that the kidnappers have not yet made any ransom demands.

"The assailants were well aware that they would get nothing, as the kidnapping of Camilla Carr and Jon James did not shake the British government's position on this issue," General Tagirov said.

Since Chechnya was granted semi-autonomy in 1996, hundreds of people have been taken hostage, many being held for months. A senior Russian politician, Akmal Saidov, was found shot dead last week.

It has become highly dangerous to visit the republic since the end of the war in 1996, even with bodyguards.

The Chechen tradition of the "blood revenge" means that any Chechen who kills another can except fatal vengeance from the victim's family. It is therefore doubtful whether, no matter how well paid they were, many guards would risk entering a deadly feud.

Faced with the new, intensely complex business of negotiating another release, the Foreign Office's instincts may be to say as little as possible, while encouraging the hostages' relatives to do the same. "What is there to say about it?" one Moscow-based diplomat said. "You can imagine for yourself how we feel."

The spotlight will now inevitably fall on the nature of the deal that was struck to release Mr James and Ms Carr last month. The British government has insisted throughout that no ransom was paid, a view echoed by the chief deal-maker, the Russian business and media magnate, Boris Berezovsky. However, Mr Berezovsky, who has paid ransoms for hostages in the past, has also boasted of facilitating the deal by supplying the Chechens with computers. As a consignment of digital hardware is unlikely to have satisfied the hostage-takers, this is unlikely to be the whole story. Either - as sources are suggesting - the Chechens let the couple go because they had been tracked down and had no option, or wads of money passed hands, thereby laying the ground for more kidnappings.

When Mr Berezovsky flew to Chechnya to pick up the hostages he was accompanied by a Russian TV crew. Now he can expect to be called upon for help again by the Foreign Office.

The Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov is blaming its political enemies, saying that the Britons' abduction has nothing to do with money, but much to do with its rivals' desire to overthrow them. Foes there are aplenty - not least, the wild one-eyed Chechen commander Salman Raduyev, who seems close to the kidnapping business, and Arbi Barayev, a fervent enemy of the current Chechen government and a radical Islamic leader.