Russians recoup most of kidnap ransom cash: Airborne hijackers scatter dollars 500,000 to placate gunmen on the ground

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The Independent Online
THE Russian authorities have recovered more than dollars 9m of a dollars 10m (pounds 6.7m) ransom paid to kidnappers who seized a dozen hostages and spent five days hopping around southern Russian in a hijacked helicopter before being caught early yesterday morning.

A substantial sum, however, appears to be missing, some of it reportedly scattered from the air during the final leg of an odyssey described by officials in Moscow as 'a case without precedent'.

Mikhail Yegorov, the First Deputy Interior Minister, told a press conference that the recovered cash was still being counted but added: 'Judging by weight, we believe there is at least dollars 9m.' The missing portion was estimated at 'no more than half-a-million'.

The ransom, paid last Friday in the spa town of Mineralnye Vody, had been provided by Russian commercial banks after a plea for help from the Central Bank.

According to Itar-Tass news agency, the kidnappers were worried about being shot down over the breakaway republic of Chechnya on Sunday night and decided to sprinkle dollars from the open door of their helicopter as it flew over the mountain region, which has a fearsome reputation of violent hostility to outsiders. The money was meant to buy off gunmen on the ground.

The four kidnappers, caught after a gunbattle in Dagestan on the Caspian Sea, were yesterday identified as former Soviet citizens from Central Asia and a 44-year-old Russian discharged from the airforce for 'immoral behaviour'. Two had previous convictions: a Kyrgyz man aged 47 jailed three times, and a 21-year-old Uzbek student of applied mathematics and mechanics previously convicted of rape. The fourth is a 19-year-old Kazakh architecture student.

'They were well-trained and well-armed and the threats they made with regard to the hostages were very real,' said Oleg Soskovets, a Deputy Prime Minister put in charge of a crisis unit grouping officials from the military, security, interior and health ministries. 'We have no experiences of combating terrorism of this kind.' Their motive, he said, was money.

The drama began last Thursday when four masked gunmen burst into a school in Rostov-on-Don, hijacked a helicopter and crew, and demanded that they be flown to Iran. But this was a ruse. 'They did not intend to go anywhere abroad but wanted to use local conditions, the time of day, simply to disappear,' said Mr Soskovets.

He said that the last of their hostages, two pilots seized with the helicopter and released only yesterday, were in a 'state of nervous breakdown' after 'four days and nights under constant pressure'.

The kidnappers shut down all navigation and radio equipment aboard the helicopter to avoid detection. But Mr Soskovets suggested the craft had at some stage been fitted with electronic bugs to allow authorities to eavesdrop on conversations inside. Military helicopters were ordered to shadow the kidnappers. Authorities were helped by the fact that without navigation aids the kidnappers had to guide themselves in flight by roads or railways. 'Ambush parties were posted along these routes which is why we managed to track them down and detain them so quickly.'

Health officials have been ordered to test the four kidnappers for Aids following reports that all were suffering the disease.

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