Popping into bandit land

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VALODYA AT least looked the part. Brown velvet shirt. Fat signet ring. Great car. We were looking for a man-about-town, someone with clout and good connections who was not a Mafia hood. He seemed to fit the bill.

"Ingushetia, you say," he said, pondering the proposition from behind the wheel of his BMW taxi. "You do know that we won't go there, don't you? You have to be careful; they steal our cars and take hostages down there."

We knew. How could we fail to? Almost every day reports come through to Moscow of abductions, war, murders, piracy and ransom demands. The tiddler republic of Ingushetia - part of the Russian Federation - is next- door to the breakaway republic of Chechnya, where three British telephone engineers and a New Zealander are held hostage, after being seized by armed men in the Chechen capital, Grozny, a month ago.

The 300,000 Ingush regard the Chechens as cousins who have a similar language, and who share Islam and a bloody, but ambivalent, history of conflict with Russia. It seemed a good place to ask questions about the four men, especially as the republic's president, Ruslan Aushev, had invited us to the ceremony marking the opening of his new capital, to which top Chechens were expected.

Flights from Moscow to Nazran were full. We decided to go by road. But first we needed to know that we could safely slip in and out of the place, without hiring guards armed with sub- machine-guns.

Which was why we had come to Mineralnye Vody in Stavropol. It is a regional transport hub, sitting on the highway that runs diagonally from southern Russia down to Azerbaijan on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. En route, it passes through Grozny, Chechnya's wild and bandit-plagued capital, and - 50 miles to the west - there is the slightly more law-abiding town of Nazran.

After a few minutes of thought, Valodya announced that he would take us to Nalchik, which is in the neighbouring republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. There, he would find us a reliable driver and recruit him to take us into the republic. "Don't worry," he concluded, "you will be my guests." The last point was important: if anyone let us down, it would be an affront to his hospitality; they would have to answer to him. Good, said my colleague Olga.

It is a strange feeling, the knowledge that, at least theoretically, there is a price on your head. We swapped Valodya's taxi for a battered 16-year-old Lada, and were approaching the Ingush border. I was trying to look as Caucasian (and as worthless) as possible, by lounging in the back seat in an old blue jumper, and pretending to doze every time we passed through police checkpoints. Olga - who, as a Russian, is also a good catch for a commercial kidnapper - was sucking a boiled sweet and knitting.

We eventually arrived. We spent but six hours in Ingushetia, enough time to ask some questions and get out before dark. We saw only two other Westerners there, both ringed tightly by men in army fatigues carrying Kalashnikovs.

As we sped out of the area, we were suddenly flagged down by a man in paramilitary uniform. Concerned, I leapt out of the car to explain that we were journalists, heading for safer climes. "What do I care," he replied, curtly. "You crossed the central white line back there, and that's illegal. Twenty roubles, please."