Putin's rival resurfaces with bizarre tale of kidnap and 'revolting video'

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The Independent Online

Ivan Rybkin, the Russian presidential candidate whose mysterious disappearance evoked all the worst memories of Soviet-era KGB excesses, resurfaced in dramatic, if shambolic fashion, yesterday in London, claiming he had been kidnapped, drugged and kept incommunicado for four days in Ukraine.

He said his captors had made a compromising and "revolting" video of him while he was unconscious in an effort to end his political ambitions. He also said preliminary results of medical tests in London showed the might not have been only drugged, but had a gas mask put over his face as well.

Mr Rybkin was at a central London hotel, with his campaign manager, Xenia Ponomareva. Their press conference was delayed for more than an hour because of a technical hitch with a planned satellite link-up with Moscow which never materialised.

When efforts to communicate with Moscow were abandoned, Mr Rybkin read a statement which gave an hour-by-hour, but still strangely sketchy, account of his ordeal. In conclusion, he insisted no pressure would deflect him from his campaign, but he would not be returning to Russia before the election on 14 March, although he had no desire to stay outside Russia indefinitely.

Ms Ponomareva said she was going back to Moscow to manage the office and insisted Mr Rybkin's status as a registered candidate entitled him to free television time and free newspaper adverts, like other candidates. Mr Rybkin, relating his story, said he had been approached in late January by someone he knew from his time as a member of President Boris Yeltsin's security council in the mid-Nineties, suggesting the possibility of a peace deal with the rebels in Chechnya. A feature of Mr Rybkin's election manifesto was a pledge to end the war with Chechnya within six months, along lines provisionally agreed six years before.

The go-between proposed a meeting with the region's former elected president, Aslan Maskhadov, now called a terrorist by the Russian government, somewhere outside Russia. Mr Rybkin accepted in principle and on 3 February, he made a flying visit to London to consult Ahmed Zakayev, an exiled Chechen leader with whom he had negotiated before.

When he returned to Moscow on 4 February he had a call from the go-between fixing the meeting for 6 February in Kiev. He said he left his flat at 8pm on 5 February, and was escorted by the go-between to an armoured Mercedes.

He was then driven about 200km south-west of Moscow to Kaluga, where he and two others boarded a train for Odessa. Mr Rybkin said he filled in all the forms for the border formalities with Ukraine, implying these should be the record. An armoured Mercedes with shaded windows awaited him in Kiev, he was driven to a flat, offered tea and sandwiches, and "we drank to the health of Maskhadov".

Soon, he said, he became inexplicably drowsy. The next he knew he was coming to in another flat, feeling "shattered and very tired" and being offered the chance to shower. He was amazed to learn four days had passed and it was 10 February. Then, he said, with a breaking voice, he was shown the video "the villains" had made. He refused to give details, other than describing it as "compromising material of the most revolting kind". But he angrily excluded the possibility, broached by a Russian reporter, that the video might have been recorded at another time. "One of my guards told me this was a special operation," he said.

Mr Rybkin said he was put on a scheduled flight back to Moscow and he "tormented" himself about what to do. "My reputation was absolutely neither here nor there," he said. "But I wanted to do my utmost to prevent the government of this mediocrity of a President, Vladimir Putin, from continuing the destruction of my country."

But he refused to blame Mr Putin, saying: "I don't know who did it, but I know who benefited." He added: "I'm in the sort of frame of mind that if my grand-daughter grazed her knee, I would blame President Putin."

Asked to explain his wife's comment soon after his reappearance - "I pity the land that has my husband as president" - his voice almost broke again and he said: "We have been married for 32 years. She was under incredible pressure."

He said she had been repeatedly questioned by the Moscow police and their flat was searched. He defended his failure to leave a note or indication of where he was going "to protect my wife and family".

His account left many questions unanswered. Had he been abducted, or had he, as some speculated, just "gone on a bender". Is there a video, what does it show and when was it made? And why would Mr Putin or anyone else feel the need to discredit Mr Rybkin, when opinion polls give him just 1 per cent of the vote?