Hostage liberator of Caucasus 'was in league with kidnap gangs'

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The Independent Online

Families desperate to win the freedom of relatives kidnapped in the north Caucasus mountains hailed her as a heroine. Her name was Radimhan Mogushkova, a tough, blond woman in her mid-forties who lived in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia.

Families desperate to win the freedom of relatives kidnapped in the north Caucasus mountains hailed her as a heroine. Her name was Radimhan Mogushkova, a tough, blond woman in her mid-forties who lived in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia.

She seemed one of the few hopes of release for hundreds of captives held for ransom in dark basements by organised kidnap gangs. The local security services in the mosaic of corrupt, impoverished states created by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were unable to cope. "There are villages in Chechnya where there is a hostage in every basement," said one source.

Mrs Mogushkova would negotiate with kidnappers on behalf of victims' families. She had a fondness for publicity, but she was successful often enough to be awarded a medal and was even given a car by the governor of one Russian province. "I thought her manner a little strange, she was a little difficult to figure out, but she seemed to be effective," said one Russian who knew her.

Now Mrs Mogushkova's reputation as the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Caucasus is under attack. Worse, she is accused of being in league with the kidnap gangs with whom she was negotiating. Major Vlacheslav Izmailov, a former Russian army officer, said: "I am certain she was involved."

Major Izmailov, whose thickset balding figure is famous in the Caucasus, is an expert on the kidnapping industry. Originally his job was to find the graves of Russian soldiers killed in the last Chechen-Russian conflict, but at the end of the war he switched to looking for Russians and Chechens who had been abducted and held for ransom.

Normally, only the kidnapping of foreigners or prominent Russians receives publicity. Last year four British employees of Granger Telecom were seized in Chechnya and later beheaded. But most of those held by local gangs are ordinary Chechens or Russians.

Last month Major Izmailov came to Nazran looking for four people: two Russian soldiers kidnapped elsewhere in the Caucasus and two mothers of kidnap victims who had also disappeared. He says he had suspected for two years that Mrs Mogushkova was "an adventuress" who knew more about the kidnappings than she revealed.

He says he went to her house accompanied by local security men and immediately found the two women. They said Mrs Mogushkova had taken their passports and forbidden them to make telephone calls. She had apparently also got them to sign typed letters to governors in their home provinces, asking for money to free their relatives.

Mrs Mogushkova was out when Major Izmailov arrived, but on her return he demanded to know the whereabouts of the two soldiers. He says she told him they were in Chechnya. He had noticed a number of men digging a latrine at her house. He had them separately questioned. One of them, a Chechen, said the soldiers were kept in a house near by. Major Izmailov freed them.

He said: "She has friends in the Ingush security. They didn't arrest her at first and when they came back she and her son had disappeared. Nobody has seen them since."

For the moment the kidnapping industry has been disrupted by war. Russian troops have sealed the borders of Chechnya where most of those kidnapped are kept. In Ingushetia local police and Interior Ministry troops man frequent checkpoints. Some of the bandit warlords in Chechnya are too busy fighting to continue their commercial activities.

But Major Izmailov does not believe that the kidnappers will stop for long. "It is too well organised. There are too many young men in this part of the world who are unemployed. The only way to stop it is by using special forces," he said.

Curiously enough, there was just such an attempt immediately before the start of the present war, according to Chechen sources. Funded by rich Chechen businessmen in Moscow, whose families were often preyed on by kidnappers, the Chechen Interior Ministry set up a special unit of 50 to 60 officers. Their mandate was to shoot kidnappers who could not be arrested.

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