`Who rules Chechnya?' FO asked engineers

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The Independent Online
CHECHNYA IS one of the few countries in the world considered too dangerous for foreign governments to work.

With the exception of one British-based charity, the Halo Trust, which works clearing landmines, the only other Western presence are the observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). So when the engineers from Granger Telecom and British Telecom arrived in the capital, Grozny last year, they were a valuable commodity.

The five-year deal to install mobile phone and satellite links, of which the men were part, was worth pounds 200m to the Surrey firm.

At the time of the men's kidnap on 4 October, the company's chief executive, Ray Worth, said: "We undertook the contract with the knowledge [about the lack of security] and considered the the risks were worth the effort."

But the men were valuable in another way. They were also a direct source of information for a government that was unable to use its own people.

The Independent has learnt that Granger Telecom first met Foreign Office officials in July last year. At the meeting in central London a number of issues were discussed, including the nature of the work the company and its employees Darren Hickey, 26, Rudolf Petschi, 42, Stanley Shaw, 58 and self- employed BT contractor Peter Kennedy, 46, were carrying out.

The official advice to the company and other Britons considering travelling to the Caucuses republic, torn apart by an 18-month war with Russia, was clear: don't go. Chechnya is one of a dozen countries listed as being too dangerous to travel to under any circumstances. The Foreign Office insists it made this clear to Granger.

But at the same time it was desperately trying to secure the release of two charity workers, Camilla Carr and Jon James, who were taken hostage while working in Grozny in the summer of 1997.

Information about the pair was scant although the kidnappers made some communication with the authorities about a possible ransom. While the Foreign Office was obtaining information from the OSCE office and the Russians, who still have some presence in Grozny, it was keen to obtain other news about the pair.

It is now clear it was also prepared to take any information the engineers could provide. In a letter to Granger from the Foreign Office's Eastern Division dated 13 August, a desk officer wrote: "As part of our efforts to secure the safe release of Camilla Carr and Jon James we have had frequent, if so far, relatively unproductive contacts with the Chechen leadership." It continues: "As one of the very small number of British companies involved in Chechnya and having first-hand knowledge of Grozny we would welcome your views on the potential for international investment in Chechnya."

It also asks for the company's views on its contacts - who it considered to be the "movers and shakers". It then adds: "Finally we would also like to discuss the Carr and James case. Is there anything else that we might be doing to secure their release?"

Last night a Foreign Office spokesman defended its request to the company and said it was only trying to secure the release of Mr James and Ms Carr and was not interested in the information for any other reason.

"There is nothing wrong with this, we would have asked other companies as well," said a spokesman. "It is not spying."

While the spokesman confirmed that the information would have been examined by groups trying to secure the release of the hostages, he refused to say whether it would have been passed to the security services.

On 20 September, Ms Carr and Mr James were released by the hostage- takers and returned to Britain.

The four engineers were not to be so lucky. Within weeks of their arrival in Chechnya, they too were taken hostage. For two months there was little word on them and then on 8 December, their decapitated heads were discovered 40 miles from Grozny.