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Saturday, January 31, 1998 Published at 19:12 GMT


UN agency head kidnapped in Russia

The head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Southern Russia has been taken hostage.

Vincent Cochetel, a French citizen, was kidnapped by three armed men during the night in Vladikavkaz, the capital of the southern Russian region of North Ossetia.

Mr Cochetel had just returned home after dinner when he and his driver were attacked, dragged inside his house and then tied up.

After searching the house the men left, taking Mr Cochetel with them.

The 37-year-old Frenchman, who has two small children, has been working in the North Caucasus region of Russia for 16 months.

BBC Moscow correspondent Robert Parsons said: "Kidnapping is endemic in the North Caucasus but this is the first time UNHCR staff have been abducted. So far the kidnappers have made no demands.

"Two British citizens, Camilla Carr and John James, were kidnapped in the neighbouring region of Chechnya last July and have yet to be released."

The heavily-armed kidnap gangs which operate all over the region often demand big ransoms for the release of their captives.

The Unhcr office in Geneva said it has no idea of the motive for Mr Cochetel's seizure and appealed for his immediate release.

The agency has a large office in Vladikavkaz in an attempt to cope with the thousands of refugees from conflicts in Chechnya and other parts of the region.

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