Three Red Cross workers released from captivity in northern Georgia

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The Independent Online

Three abducted Red Cross workers were released in northern Georgia early Sunday after more than a week of captivity, and appeared to be in good condition, officials said.

Three abducted Red Cross workers were released in northern Georgia early Sunday after more than a week of captivity, and appeared to be in good condition, officials said.

The three workers were handed over in the Pankisi Gorge, where they had traveled to help refugees from Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya, said Temur Arabuli, chief of police in the Akhmed district.

Arabuli would not say whether ransom was paid for the release of the Red Cross workers but said the trio's health was normal. One of the negotiators, Mamuka Areshidze, told Russia's NTV television that the captors demanded they would not be arrested or tried for the abductions.

"One condition was made during the negotiations, to end the criminal case that was opened against the hostage-takers," Areshidze said.

Authorities have said nothing about the identity of the abductors or their motives.

Georgian authorities had negotiated with the abductors for several days, and had predicted the workers' quick release. The three workers immediately left for the capital Tbilisi, where the International Red Cross mission in Georgia is based.

The Red Cross workers were Sophia Procofieff from France, Natascia Zullino from Italy and their Georgian driver Yuri Darchiev. They were last heard from on Aug. 3, when they left for the Pankisi Gorge, and their abandoned car was found two days later.

Initially, Red Cross officials feared the three workers had been taken across the mountainous border to Chechnya, where Russian troops have been battling rebel forces since September. Arabuli would not say who the kidnappers were.

The International Red Cross, based in Switzerland, said in a statement that Zullino and Procofieff would return to Geneva and be reunited with their families.

International aid groups pulled out of Chechnya and surrounding regions after a wave of kidnappings and killings of Russians and foreigners that followed the first, 1994-96 Chechnya war.

Six Red Cross workers were shot to death in 1996 as they slept in Chechnya's capital Grozny and at least three foreign aid workers were kidnapped. Kidnapping for ransom became a huge industry in Chechnya after Russian troops pulled out at the end of the last war.

Aid groups began returning cautiously to the area after Russian forces entered Chechnya again last September, but only a few aid workers are inside the republic itself, largely because of security concerns.

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