Russia trades Chechens for its hostages

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The Independent Online
CHECHENS ON remand in Russian jails are being freed in return for Russian hostages and slave labourers in the bandit-infested republic.

One recent swap involved a 31-year-old Chechen, Artur Denisultanov, in prison awaiting trial in St Petersburg on kidnap and extortion charges, which carry a 10-year sentence.

His family paid a $16,000 ransom for him and he was exchanged for Sergei Leontyev, a 19-year-old Russian soldier, abducted last year and sold into slavery in Chechnya.

Mr Leontyev says he spent much of his captivity digging pits and was sold at least three times. "The idea was a brilliant one," his mother, Irina, told The Independent. "I would never have seen my son again. They would have shot him as soon as he became disabled."

Vyacheslav Izmailov, a former Russian army major, organised PoW exchanges in Grozny at the end of the republic's 21-month war with Moscow. He says he arranged two swaps - two Russian captives for two Chechens in Russian prisons.

He got to know the main Chechen hostage-takers. "They are bandits and murderers, and if we didn't do this [exchanges] the captives would end up like the ones who were beheaded," he says, a reference to the four telecommmunications workers, three Britons and a New Zealander, murdered in the republic last year.

Russian officials justify the swaps by citing a 1997 resolution by the Russian Duma, parliament's lower house, which encourages exchanges for Chechen prisoners who were either on remand (and theoretically required to stay in the area) or who had served two-thirds of their sentences.

The swaps raise the risk of fuelling Chechnya's flourishing hostage racket. Both Russians and Chechens have an extra incentive to imprison one another. Kidnappings and multi-digit ransom demands have reached epidemic proportions since the war.

Now they are becoming Chechnya's main source of hard currency, and Chechnya's hapless President, Aslan Maskhadov, has been able to do nothing about it.

Officials in Moscow say at least 250 Russians are being held in the republic. Nikolai Ivanov was dispatched by the Russian authorities to Chechnya in June 1996 in the vain belief that he would be able to set up a tax police department.

He was soon taken hostage, and spent 113 days in captivity, mostly in pits surviving on a diet of tea and pasta. He was held with two other men, with whom he passed the time catching mice or playing with tiny playing cards and dominoes made from L&M cigarette packets.

Ivanov being a tax police colonel, initially the Chechens wanted $500,000 for him. But the Russians devised a plan to exchange him for a Chechen, who had been detained after several bus bombings in Moscow.

The kidnappers "didn't consent for a long time", says Colonel Ivanov. "But our people showed the Chechen to his family to awaken them emotionally. The family began to press the head of the gang to consent. Finally, he did."

Not everyone is so lucky. Antonina Laponina, a 52-year-old vet from Moscow, is convinced her 21-year-old son, Misha, a conscripted soldier, is still alive.

He disappeared shortly before the end of the war. His mother is undeterred by the dangers of visiting Chechnya, and she has made three trips there to trace him. Four times Chechens have assured Mrs Laponina her son is alive and working as a slave for a Georgian gangster.

Although no admirer of swaps, she would go through with it to see her son again. But she has no proof to show he is still alive, no photograph or video.

"Without direct proof, the authorities won't consider it," she said. "But I will go on trying. I will continue this to the end."

All the signs suggest that the hostage racket will continue. This week Boris Yeltsin said that he would meet President Maskhadov to talk about Chechnya's status, but urged the republic to abandon its claim for independence.

"We will talk about how to live on," said Mr Yeltsin, whose decision to launch a war on Grozny cost tens of thousands of lives. "What is important is that we gave (Chechnya) time to realise that it cannot live inside Russia without Russia."

Such words - given the republic's lawlessness, internal feuding and resentment of Moscow - offer little hope of bringing stability to this cauldron of the Caucasus, for its citizens, or its slaves.