Hostages held in Chechnya `are still alive'

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The Independent Online
THE THREE Britons and one New Zealander abducted in Chechnya earlier this month are still alive, according to an influential leader in the Caucasus region who has played a pivotal role in organising previous hostage releases.

Ruslan Aushev, President of the republic of Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya, told The Independent yesterday that he could guarantee that the hostages' lives were not at risk, and promised to do everything possible to set them free.

Mr Aushev, a former Soviet army major-general who is known to have extremely close links within Chechnya, played an important part in the release of the British aid workers Camilla Carr and Jon James, who emerged from Chechnya last month after being held in cellars for nearly 15 months. They were taken out of the region via his republic, accompanied by Ingush bodyguards.

In the past few days the Foreign Office has made contact with Mr Aushev via its British ambassador to Moscow, Sir Andrew Wood, in the hope that the Ingush President can again provide help.

The telecommunications engineers - Darren Hickey, 26, from Kingston- upon-Thames; Rudi Petschi, 42, from Cullompton, Devon; Peter Kennedy, 46, from London; and Stan Shaw, a New Zealander living in Surrey - were seized in Chechnya two weeks ago, after going to the republic against Foreign Office advice. They were setting up a telephone system. According to Russia's Interior Minister, Sergei Stepashin - who was in Ingushetia yesterday - no ransom demand has yet been made for the four men.

Mr Aushev yesterday advised the Foreign Office to make contact with Aslan Maskhadov, the President of Chechnya, whom he says was the prime mover in releasing Ms Carr and Mr James.

"Then they need to talk to the federal authorities in Russia, and then to me," he added. Ingushetia, a republic of about 300,000 people who regard Chechens as brothers, has its own security force with agents in Chechnya.

Salman Raduyev, the renegade Chechen separatist commander, who last week told The Sunday Times that a ransom demand of between $2m and $4m for the four telephone engineers is imminent, has "definite influence" in the hostage-taking racket, he said.

The Foreign Office has repeatedly said that it will not breach its policy by paying a ransom for the three Britons.