Kidnapped son of Russian author killed

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The Independent Online

The teenage son of one of Russia's best-selling authors has been found dead under a bridge in southern Russia after he was held to ransom for $100,000 (£60,000) for two days.

The teenage son of one of Russia's best-selling authors has been found dead under a bridge in southern Russia after he was held to ransom for $100,000 (£60,000) for two days.

The murder of the 13-year-old boy has rocked Russia's literary establishment; the victim's father, Andrei Belyanin, 37, is one of the country's top five best-selling authors.

His 15 humorous fantasy fiction novels with names such as The Sword Without a Name and The Thief of Baghdad have entranced millions of Russians in recent years. Many of the books have sold more than two million copies. But Mr Belyanin's fame and wealth obviously stood out in the provincial town where he lived, Astrakhan, about 800 miles south of Moscow, and attracted the kidnappers' unwelcome attention.

The writer first realised something was wrong when his son Ivan failed to return home from school on Tuesday. Two hours later he received a call from a male voice explaining that Ivan had been kidnapped, but that he would be freed unharmed for a ransom of $100,000, to be paid by Thursday. The caller's voice sounded edgy and unsure.

Mr Belyanin immediately agreed to pay the ransom, but said he would need a little time to raise the money. He asked the kidnapper to call him back so that a meeting place and a time for the exchange could be arranged. In the meantime, he went to the police, who quickly mobilised a team of detectives and specialists, including agents from the FSB, the successor organisation to the KGB.

When the kidnapper called back, police traced the public phone box he was in and within a few minutes they had made an arrest, ascertaining that a phone card in the suspect's pocket had been used to call Mr Belyanin from the same call box at the same time.

The kidnapper turned out to be Ivan Kostalyev, 21, an unemployed resident of Astrakhan. Two accomplices were also arrested.

At that point Mr Belyanin had every reason to expect that the saga would have a happy ending and that Ivan would be swiftly located and released unharmed.

But although Kostalyev quickly confessed to the kidnapping, to Mr Belyanin's horror he also confessed to murder. He had strangled Ivan and dumped his body under the Kubansky bridge in an industrial part of Astrakhan.

Police rushed to the bridge, and the body was recovered, with his satchel and school uniform nearby. A post-mortem examination revealed that when Kostalyev phoned him to demand a ransom of $100,000 Ivan had already been murdered.

Kidnapping people for ransom is relatively rare in Russia, with the notable exception of strife-torn regions such as Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia, where separatist rebels regularly abduct people in the hope of raising cash to buy arms. According to the Russian interior ministry, 707 people were kidnapped in those three regions last year, 605 in Chechnya. The ministry says 1,766 people remain in captivity in those three republics, 1,699 of them in Chechnya.

Earlier this year the Dutch aid worker Arjan Erkel was freed after 20 months in captivity near Chechnya; it is unclear whether a ransom was paid.

However, the most high-profile kidnapping in Russia so far this year was not motivated by financial greed but by sexual enslavement. Two girls were held in a cellar for three years as the sex slaves of a 53-year-old factory worker. One of the girls bore two of his children and was pregnant with a third when investigators freed the girls several weeks ago.

The last major kidnapping of a public figure took place in Moscow in 2002. Sergei Kukura, a senior executive of the oil giant Lukoil, was kidnapped by a group of men with Kalashnikov rifles on his way to work. His firm offered to pay $1m for information leading to his release, but the kidnappers wanted $6m. He was eventually released unharmed. It is not clear whether a ransom was paid.