Aid workers fall victim to kidnap by money-making Chechen rebels

 

The kidnappers came in the early hours of the morning on July 4th, 1997. Breaking a window of the house in the Chechen capital of Grozny, home to British aid workers Camilla Carr and her boyfriend Jon James, they over powered the two guards who were sleeping downstairs. The kidnappers allowed Camilla just enough time to gather a few belongings before taking her and Jon to a waiting car and into the darkness of Chechnya. Camilla and Jon have been missing since. No one knows who took them.

The answer may lie in the mountain villages and enclaves dotted around Chechnya, where hundreds of Chechen rebels hide out. Chechnya has been torn apart as a result of the two-year war with Russia, which ended in 1996 with the signing of an uneasy ceasefire. With its poor housing, lack of food and money, Chechnya may have succeeded in rolling back the Russian military from its borders, but it is a long way from realising its aim of separation from the Russian Federation. Moscow is reluctant to accept autonomy, let alone independence, for its unruly neighbour.

In the mountains, hidden by supporters, the "trigger-happy" rebels have turned their guerrilla training into a grim, money-making venture. "Field commanders" appear reluctant to surrender their weapons and, according to a recent report, "swagger round, benignly for the moment, savouring victory and stroking guns". Increasingly, these rebels have resorted to kidnapping Europeans in the hope that foreign governments will pay ransom.

Camilla and Jon left Britain last April to join the Centre for Peacemaking and Community Development in Chechnya. They worked at the Little Star centre in Grozny, helping children overcome the trauma of war with Russia. Camilla's sister, Alexandra Little, is in no doubt about the motivation behind the kidnapping: "I am absolutely certain it is financially motivated. It is a group of vandals going around the country kidnapping anyone that looks European - I don't think they know what nationality they are, they have no idea. They just think they are European and take them for the money."

The turning point for Camilla and Jon's families came last summer when an intermediary, who had been working in Chechnya on their behalf, disappeared.

With no ransom demand and no contact with the kidnappers - and the French government's decision to pay a ransom for the release of one of its aid workers - Camilla and Jon's families abandoned Foreign Office advice not to seek publicity and they launched a public campaign for their release.

With the support of the former Beirut hostages, Terry Waite and John McCarthy, the families have worked to keep the case in the public eye while in the background they have tried to re-establish contact with the kidnappers. On Monday their worst fears were realised. An attempt by Chechen government soldiers to rescue Camilla and Jon in the town of Urus-Martan was aborted when the kidnappers ambushed the soldiers. During the subsequent gun battle a soldier and a kidnapper were killed.

"The rescue attempt was a big risk. It is not even certain that Camilla and Jon were there. It is a nightmare and the worry is that these raids could get out of hand," says Alexandra Little.

But when it comes to the rescue attempts (Monday's raid was the third) and the ú100,000 reward offered by the Chechen President, Mr Aslan Maskhadov, for information leading to Camilla and Jon's release, she has nothing but praise: "Maskhadov is a sincere man. He is very sympathetic and genuinely deeply concerned and distressed for us."

Jon's father, Ken James, is a resilient man. He knows they can only wait and pray for Camilla and Jon's return. "We don't know who has taken them or where they are," he says. "They went out to Chechnya to help children to smile again. It's hard but we just have to keep going and we have friends searching for them in Chechnya. We just have to hope that these people know what they are doing."

On a recent visit to London, President Maskhadov briefed both families. He met Foreign Office officials and the former prime minister, Baroness Thatcher, to test British support for his country's independence.

"The Chechens were desperate to get Camilla and Jon out before President Maskhadov's visit," explains Alexandra Little. "They know that there is no way the British can invest in Chechnya while these kidnappings are going on. But we are positive people and we know the Chechens may attempt to rescue them again. It is very frightening but we will stay calm."

Donations can be sent to: Support for Camilla and Jon Fund, Lloyds Bank, 47 Milsom Street, Bath, Avon BA1 1DN Account No 3495057.