Media stars put at mercy of Chechen gangs

Moscow dismayed as reporters are kidnapped at gunpoint and huge ransom demands follow, writes Phil Reeves
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The Independent Online
Moscow - Russian journalists have been accused of many vices, from bias to bribe-taking. But a lack of guts is not usually among the charges levelled against them.

Reporters and photographers were in the thick of the bombing and mayhem during the war in Chechyna, although it was dangerous enemy territory for their countrymen in uniform.

With peace in place, they have continued going back to the republic, despite the risk of becoming the latest statistic in a rash of abductions that is placing Moscow's precarious relations with the Chechen separatist government under fresh strain.

In the last few weeks, the Russian media has watched in horror as one after another of its staff has been spirited away by armed Chechen gangs, demanding ransoms of up to $3m.

The victims include one of the country's top news reporters, 31-year- old Yelena Masyuk, of the NTV network, who made her name by providing daring and graphic war reports from the region. Many Russians already believe that a humiliating peace deal was struck with their Islamic neighbours; seeing their media stars disappear is a large blow on a festering bruise.

Yesterday, the number of journalists kidnapped this year rose to nine after two journalists were forced into a car at gunpoint during the early afternoon in the centre of Grozny, the capital, and taken off to captivity. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, seven other journalists disappeared in 1995 and 1996 and are feared dead.

Journalists are far from alone in being the target for kidnappers, who are depicted both in Moscow and Grozny as bandits who care nothing for politics, but a great deal for large sums of money. Since the end of the 21-month war last August, dozens of people - including western aid agency officials - have been abducted, serving a fresh reminder of the lawlessness that now prevails in post-war Chechnya. By far the worst outrage came late last year when six Red Cross workers were shot dead in their beds.

The latest kidnappings will particularly rankle with the Russians, who only three nights ago were treated to happy TV footage of four journalists who had just been released after three months of captivity and many rounds of intense negotiations.

Aid and media organisations routinely deny that they pay ransoms, although there are persistent rumours that deals have been struck in which large sums of money have been paid, and Chechens have been released from Russian prisons.

Without doubt, some of the kidnappers have struck the jackpot.

The Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, has insisted that he has personally led efforts to free kidnapped journalists, and has accused the kidnappers of jeopardising the republic's long and difficult recovery.

Last month - despite their differences - the Chechens and the Russians signed a peace treaty intended to end 400 years of hostility. But, with another two Russians behind bars, this outbreak of sweetness and light will prove hard to sustain.

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