Chechnya's hostages name their own price

Kidnapping has become a daily event, an epidemic comparable with Beirut at its worst

For the armed men who seized Ilyas, it was a typically Caucasian business transaction, much like selling a rug. They politely ushered him into a car, pulled a stocking over his head and drove him for three hours into the Chechen mountains where he was locked in a basement. But it was up to him to name his price."They told me `we brought you here for money. We are not interested in anything else'," he said, wringing his hands nervously, "Our business is to bring you here and to take you away again . Your business is to produce the money. I had to state the ransom sum."

The war may be over in Chechnya, but the atrocities are not. For 21 months, this small republic had to suffer the agonies of war, from the wild bombing of its villages to the destruction of its capital city, Grozny. There is relief from the fighting, but not from discord.

The new trade in post-war Chechnya is not in weapons or drugs, it is in people. Every day brings news of a kidnapping in what has become an epidemic comparable with Beirut at its worst. Sometimes they take foreign aid workers, sometimes Chechens.

Yesterday, five Russian soldiers were added to the scores of people being held in cellars. A mood of deep distrust has set in. As Ilyas told his story, two of his relatives sat with him in the room, cradling Kalashnikovs. A hunting rifle lay at his feet. The next time the armed men arrive, they will be ready.

But he was fortunate. "Their usual tactic is to make you wait for weeks or months. They believe you will get so fed up you will eventually pay," he said, "But when they put me in the basement I noticed the walls faced a neighbour's garden , so I decided to dig a hole." Within just over 24 hours, he was free and hitching a lift home where his relatives had taken up arms and were scouring the streets.

Both a lack of money and post-war chaos lie beneath the abduction racket. There are precious few jobs in Chechnya, where the infrastructure lies in ruins and money for reconstruction has yet to arrive - and may never materialise. With the last Russian troops leaving, the streets are filled with young armed boiviki, bearded separatists still in battle dress. They have spent almost two years fighting for independence but now have nothing to do. As the republic has yet to organise a police force, kidnapping is as easy as falling off a log. International aid agencies have been a prime target. Members of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Grozny have been abducted with such frequency that the sub-delegation's director, Fery Aalame struggles to remember the precise number this year. "We have had nine," he eventually concludes, counting them off under his breath.

Mr Aalame's agency is the biggest in the republic, and is busy repairing schools, the wrecked sewage system and hospitals. He has yet to pay out a penny in ransom money, having recovered staff using a network of Chechen contacts. But rumours abound that some international bodies have paid $80,000 (pounds 48,000) for the release of personnel, attracting complaints that they are only making matters worse.

It is not only a question of crime. While some of the abductions are purely criminal, others reflect the bigger social divisions in the aftermath of war. Although, with the withdrawal of Russian troops, Chechnya is now under a coalition government, no-one disputes that the separatist move- ment is in charge. Chechens who worked for the previous Moscow-backed administration of Doku Zavgayev now feel so much at risk that some dare not leave their homes.

Ilyas, the son of an influential local administrator, believes he was the victim of crim- inals, although his abductors looked like separatist soldiers. He comes from Urus-Martan, a town of 47,000, which has barely been damaged - not least because half the inhabitants supported the pro-Moscow government during the war,

Now, as the republic prepares for elections in January, the pro-Zavgayev minority feels under threat. The separatist leadership insists it is doing everything to stop reprisals and crack down on kidnapping. But in Urus-Martan there have already been changes. The town administrator and the iman in the local mosque have been replaced and the deputy adminstrator was kidnapped three days ago.

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