Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mystery Surrounds Chechnya Kidnapping

Fears are growing for the safety of a US aid worker kidnapped by Chechen gunmen
By Guria Murlinskaya

The dramatic abduction of an American aid worker in Chechnya last Tuesday has whipped up a storm of speculation in the Russian and international press.


According to the official version, Kenny Gluck, 38, head of the Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF, mission to the North Caucasus, was abducted by gunmen in the Chechen village of Starie Atagi.


The Russian military claims that Chechen fighters ambushed the small aid convoy in which Gluck was travelling on January 9.


A colleague, Jonathan Littel, of Action Against Hunger, was wounded in the attack but managed to escape in one of the cars. Gluck, however, was seized together with three Chechens and bundled into a waiting vehicle.


According to federal intelligence sources, the gunmen were part of a unit commanded by Ramzan Akhmadov, brother of Chechnya's foreign minister, Ilyas Akhmadov. Lieutenant-General Valery Baranov, of the North Caucasus Army Group, stated that "Ramzan Akhmadov's gang has long been involved in this kind of criminal activity and has been linked to a similar incident in Georgia when members of the OSCE were kidnapped by bandits."


It is thought the MSF worker is currently being held in a mountain base to the south of the rebel republic.


However, Lecho Mamatsuev, deputy head of the Urus-Martan administration, has offered a different version of events, claiming that Gluck was kidnapped on the orders of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, whose presidential mandate runs out on January 26.


Says Mamatsuev, "Maskhadov is using every means at his disposal to ensure that people still consider him the leader of Ichkeria [the Chechen name for the republic] and the only person with whom the Russians can negotiate."


Some Russian newspapers have speculated that Gluck organised his own abduction in order to spark an international outcry and "focus attention on the situation in Chechnya". This version was dismissed as "absurd" by Ingushetia's head of security, Bagoutdin Aushev, who is currently spearheading the search for the missing American.


According to The Times in London, some aid workers privately believe Gluck's kidnapping was staged by the Russian military in a bid to "gain greater control over charities in Chechnya and to deter Western reporters from going there".


Meanwhile, the Chechen rebel leaders have been swift to distance themselves from the kidnapping and Maskhadov himself is offering a reward for any information leading to Gluck's release.


Fears are growing for the American's physical well-being. A Moscow friend, Tatyana Vorozheikina, told the Echo Moscow radio station last week that the MSF leader suffered from chronic asthma and, without access to vital medicines, his life could be in danger.


Gluck first came to Russia as a journalist in 1990. His involvement with foreign aid organisations dates from 1994 and has included stints in Tajikistan and Chechnya.


A statement from Medecins Sans Frontieres said, "MSF is extremely concerned about the fate of their colleague and is outraged at this direct attack on a clearly marked humanitarian convoy that was delivering medical assistance to the Chechen population.


"MSF urges that whoever may be holding their colleague will respect his physical and mental integrity and will release him unharmed."


The organisation has rejected claims by the Russian authorities that the two Americans entered Chechnya "using a forged pass... and without the official permission of the military authorities".


Gluck is the latest in a long line of foreign nationals to have been kidnapped in Chechnya over the past few years. According to Russian estimates, hostage-taking was the single most profitable industry in the rebel republic between 1996 and the start of the second military campaign in 1999.


The phenomenon was thrust forcibly into the international spotlight in 1997 when two British charity workers, Jon James and Camilla Carr, were abducted from a Grozny suburb. The hostages were released 14 months later, with both Russia and Britain denying that any ransom had been paid.


In the following year, four members of a British telecommunications team - Peter Kennedy, Rudolf Petschi, Stanley Shaw and Darren Hickey - were brutally executed by their Chechen captors. And, in July 2000, French photographer Brice Fleutiaux, 32, was rescued by Russian special forces after nine months in captivity.


Guria Murlinskaya is a correspondent for the Severny Kavkaz newspaper


More IWPR's Global Voices