Chechen gunmen kidnap aid workers

Briton and Frenchman disappear on food mission, writes Helen Womack
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The Independent Online
Moscow - A 23-year-old Briton has been kidnapped by gunmen in Chechnya, along with a Frenchman with whom he was working on an aid mission to the war-torn Caucasian region.

Russian officials said a special task force had been set up to look for the two men, Michael Penrose and 35-year-old Frederic Malardeau. So far, nobody has claimed responsibility for their kidnapping.

"We received a phone call from someone who said he saw armed men bundle the two foreigners into a car in Grozny," said Igor Pogosov, spokesman for the Moscow-approved Chechen Interior Ministry.

Interfax News Agency said a man identifying himself as Bolat Adayev had telephoned journalists in Chechnya from the southern Russian city of Krasnodar and claimed the kidnappers wanted half a million dollars for the men. But their employer, the Paris-based aid organisation International Action Against Hunger, said it had yet to receive a ransom demand.

"The people who kidnapped them also took radio equipment and mobile telephones, so they can call us any time," said a spokesman, Jose Bitgin. But he made clear they had little chance of extorting money from the aid agency.

The two men had been delivering food parcels to vulnerable people in Chechnya, including pregnant women and the elderly.

Mr Penrose and his colleague are not the first aid workers to be kidnapped in Chechnya. Earlier this year, two representatives of the French organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres were seized but their captors released them unharmed after two weeks.

The American aid worker Fred Cuny, who went missing in April 1995, was not so lucky. His brother said after his death that it appeared he and his three Russian companions had been executed on suspicion of spying.

Much will depend on the group that has carried out the latest kidnapping. Chechen separatist leaders denied responsibility but they are split and have little control over their wilder elements.

Despite his election promises, President Boris Yeltsin has failed to bring peace and order to Chechnya. No sooner had he been returned to the Kremlin for a second term on 3 July than fresh fighting broke out.

Russian negotiators are in the area, trying to revive the peace process. But the Russian Army continues to attack villages while the rebels are also active again. Last month, the hard-line guerrilla Salman Raduyev, believed dead, resurfaced after plastic surgery. There are even rumours that former Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev, declared dead and buried in April, is actually alive and will soon return to Chechnya.

TReuter - Chechen separatists accused Russian forces of killing dozens of people in overnight attacks on a string of villages, the Interfax News Agency said yesterday. It quoted Movladi Udugov, press spokesman for the rebels, as saying the main attacks were on the villages of Borzoi and Guchin-Kala in the south of the region. The Russians are said to have bombed Itum-Kalinski, Nozhay-Yurt and Shatoi regions at about 11.30 p.m. (19.30 GMT) on Saturday, and five villages were reportedly attacked with artillery.

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