Missing: Chechnya kidnappers' 800 victims

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Russian officials claim that 800 hostages have been taken in Chechnya in the past year alone. The breakaway Russian republic, whose separatist leaders fought a bloody war of independence against Russian troops in 1994-96, has been rocked over the past 12 months by a wave of kidnappings of foreigners and Russians by armed gangs seeking ransom money.

A Polish envoy, Zenon Kuchciak, yesterday flew to Chechnya to try to secure the release of five Polish aid workers abducted this month. He had previously worked in Chechnya for nearly three years for the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), speaks the local language and has many contacts in the region.

On Tuesday the Polish Foreign Minister, Bronislaw Geremek, said the five young men, working for a Polish-Chechen friendship society and delivering aid, were abducted on 17 December after meeting Chechnya's former president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

They were reported missing late last week by a Chechen with whom they were staying in the village of Samashki, about 20 miles west of Grozy, the region's capital. Their host had found their deserted minibus with the tyres shot out on the road to Grozny. There has so far been no ransom demand.

After news of the Poles' abduction, the Russian Foreign Ministry said its security forces were taking "necessary measures" to free them and repeated an appeal to foreigners to stay away from the tiny Caucasus region. "This routine act of terrorism, which deserves strong condemnation, confirms that an extremely unfavourable, criminal atmosphere reigns in Chechnya," the ministry said. On Thursday, five journalists working for Reuters, WTN and two Russian television networks, ORT and NTV, went missing in Russia's southern region of Dagestan, which borders Chechnya, while investigating an attack there earlier in the week on a Russian tank unit and police post.

NTV said its correspondent in Dagestan had received a telephone call claiming a group calling itself the Dagestani People's Militia was holding several Chechens, including the journalists, as hostages.

The group said it would only free them in exchange for seven Dagestani police officers taken prisoner on Wednesday, the Itar-Tass news agency said. The police were among 11 ethnic Chechens taken prisoner, reportedly by Dagestanis, to avenge the kidnapping on Monday of local residents in Dagestan by Chechen gunmen.

- Agencies