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Last Updated: Monday, 12 April, 2004, 12:22 GMT 13:22 UK
Hostage delight as nightmare ends
Arjan Erkel
Erkel had lost weight and grown a beard in his long captivity
A Dutchman freed from Russia after a 20 month kidnap ordeal has described his delight that his "nightmare" is over.

"I feel fantastic," Arjan Erkel told journalists in Moscow.

He later flew home to the Netherlands, where he kissed the runway at Rotterdam airport and hugged his parents. He was planning to join celebrations in his home town, Westdorpe, later on Monday.

He was freed by Russian secret services and paramilitary troops during a raid in the republic of Dagestan on Sunday.

He was treated tolerably. He was getting food twice a day
Valentin Velichko
Intelligence veterans' group
He had been held in a series of locations, including a cellar.

"It was a difficult time," Mr Erkel told journalists. "I am healthy. I lost 18 kilograms (40 pounds), but I was treated well."

Mr Erkel, 34, looking frail but delighted, had earlier been taken to Dagestan's capital, Makhachkala, before being flown to Moscow.

The charity he was working for, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), says he is in "reasonably good health".

"I want to take this opportunity to thank MSF for getting me out of this nightmare," Mr Erkel said.

Arjan Erkel hugs intelligence veterans' representative Valentin Velichko
Erkel expressed his huge thanks for the intelligence operation which freed him
"This is fantastic. I feel good, what more can I say, again thanks, I have lost a few hairs here (pointing to his head) but gained a few here (pointing to his beard)."

Russian comment on the release came only from from an intelligence veterans' group which announced the successful operation.

Spokesman Valentin Velichko told reporters that no ransom had been paid, but declined to give further details except to say that Mr Erkel had been slightly injured in the operation to free him.

"When the storming happened, Mr Erkel got some minor injuries," he said.

"He was treated tolerably. He was getting food twice a day," he added.

Kidnappings rife

Dagestan shares a border with Chechnya, where Russian troops and separatist fighters have fought a bloody war.

Chechnya has seen many kidnappings, including one in 1998 when three Britons and a New Zealander were beheaded.

Mr Erkel was bundled into a car by three gunmen in Makhachkala on 12 August 2002.

The Russian authorities blamed gangsters, but MSF later accused Dagestani and Russian officials of complicity.

Human rights groups say more than 400 people were abducted in the region last year. Mr Erkel was the only Westerner being held.

Dutch aid worker freed in Russia
11 Apr 04  |  Europe
Russia accused over kidnappings
10 Mar 04  |  Europe
Charity anger over Russia kidnap
10 Mar 03  |  Europe
Aid worker abducted in Dagestan
13 Aug 02  |  Europe
Kidnap halts Chechnya aid work
29 Jul 02  |  Europe
Aid workers pull out of Chechnya
11 Jan 01  |  Europe

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