Kidnapped Dutch aid worker freed in Dagestan

Unidentified gunmen took him 607 days ago

April 12, 2004|By David Holley | David Holley,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW - A Dutch aid worker kidnapped near the war-torn republic of Chechnya nearly two years ago was freed early yesterday, ending an ordeal that had triggered sharp international criticism of Russian authorities accused of complicity in his captivity.

Arjan Erkel, 34, who led the North Caucasus mission of Doctors Without Borders, was released before dawn in Dagestan, a Russian republic adjoining Chechnya. He was flown to Moscow yesterday afternoon.

Erkel spoke briefly with reporters and did little to clear up the mystery surrounding his 20 months as a prisoner and his safe release. Looking thin and wearing a full beard but apparently in satisfactory health, he said he felt "fantastic" and declared: "If I were in Rotterdam, I would kiss the ground."

Erkel was abducted by three gunmen in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, on Aug. 12, 2002. Almost from the time of the kidnapping, Doctors Without Borders insisted that Russian officials had considerable knowledge about the case and were failing to do everything possible to free him.

The aid group said Russian authorities had acknowledged that two security agents witnessed the kidnapping. Critics said that if Russian security officers had not organized the abduction, they had allowed it to take place or were refraining from taking action to free Erkel.

Doctors Without Borders suspended activities in the region after Erkel was kidnapped. His abduction followed that of another employee, Kenneth Gluck, an American held by unidentified gunmen in Chechnya for about 25 days after he was seized in January 2001.

Some activists said Moscow was glad to see aid workers frightened away from Chechnya because they often criticized the Russian military for rights abuses against Chechen rebels.

Valentin Velichko, a representative of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service's veterans organization, said in Moscow that his group helped obtain Erkel's freedom. Authorities said national as well as regional security and paramilitary forces had won Erkel's release in a joint operation, but offered no specifics.

No ransom was paid, Velichko said.

"It's an amazing feeling of relief. It lasted 607 days," Dick Erkel, Arjen's father, told Dutch national television. "As far as we know, he is in relatively good health."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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