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Wednesday, December 9, 1998 Published at 00:55 GMT


Hostages 'beheaded at roadside'

Chechnya's anti-kidnap team

The four western hostages beheaded in Chechnya two months after they were kidnapped by gunmen may have been murdered in response to a failed rescue attempt.

The BBC's James Robbins: Kidnapping for ransom is out of control in Chechnya
The heads of Britons Darren Hickey, 26, Peter Kennedy, 46 and Rudolph Petschi, 42, were discovered in a sack alongside that of New Zealander Stanley Shaw, 58, on a deserted highway 25 miles outside the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Eyewitnesses say the remains were found together with personal documents, close to the border with the Russian region of Ingushetia.

Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, said his government's anti-terrorist squad had been closing in on the gang which kidnapped the telephone engineers.

He said this may have panicked the kidnappers - who had seized the engineers from their home in a gun battle in Grozny, in October.

The BBC's Tom de Waal, said: "I have spoken to ITAR-Tass journalists in Grozny who say there was some kind of failed operation which allowed the kidnappers to escape.

[ image:  ]
"It seems as a result of this bungled operation the hostages were murdered at some distance from the original hide-out.

"The grotesque manner of their death would indicate a show of defiance to the authorities from the kidnappers."

There are conflicting reports about arrests of suspects. The Chechen national security chief told a Moscow radio station that a man had been detained. But this was denied by the deputy prime minister.

Negotiations with hostage-takers

It emerged that Granger Telecom, the Surrey-based company which the men worked for, had entered into negotiations with the kidnappers in an effort to secure the men's release.

Ray Verth reads a statement from Granger Telecom: "Devastated to hear the news"
Company Chief Executive Ray Verth said: "We had opened a dialogue with the kidnappers and received confirmation that the hostages were alive as recently as last week."

The four are the first foreigners to be murdered in the region. A Foreign Office spokesman said Granger Telecom had been warned to withdraw from Chechnya, but had ignored the advice.

UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has pledged to discover exactly what led to the men's deaths.

He said: "We will work hard to find the truth. We need to know what happened and what is being done to bring to justice those who committed such repugnant murders."

The killings have been greeted with a tide of revulsion. Russian President Boris Yeltsin was "deeply disturbed" by the beheadings, a Kremlin spokesman said.

The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan was said to be "shocked" .

Mr Maskhadov said he would send an official letter of condolence for the murders to the UK Foreign Office.

[ image: A rescue operation appears to have gone wrong]
A rescue operation appears to have gone wrong
"I am ready to answer for what happened before our whole people and the entire world," the Chechen president was quoted as saying.

He said the four men were abducted by "bandits who are financed by foreign special services".

BBC Correspondent Paul Anderson in Moscow says this was probably a veiled reference to Russian nationalist forces seeking to destabilise the breakaway territory.

The men were in Chechnya to install a communications infrastructure for Chechen Telecom and the Chechnya Government.

[ image: Chechnya has been called the kidnap capital of the world]
Chechnya has been called the kidnap capital of the world
There are hundreds of kidnappings in Chechnya every year.

At the time the four men began their work in the region, two British aid workers, Jon James and Camilla Carr, had been in captivity in Chechnya for several months. They have since been released.

Chechnya unilaterally declared independence from Russia in 1991. Russian troops failed to recapture the territory despite intense fighting with the rebels in 1994.

A 1996 ceasefire left Moscow with no effective authority over Chechnya, though it has not acknowledged the territory's independence.

The de facto government has so far proved unable to maintain law and order in the region.

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