Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Deputy Helps Free Russian POWs

State Duma deputy and journalist Yury Shchekhochikhin arrived in Moscow from Chechnya late Thursday with three Russian prisoners of war, railing that it was no thanks to the government that the soldiers were returning home.

"Our state is doing nothing. It did not even provide the money for their plane tickets, for prisoners to return home," he said to a crowd of photographers and journalists at Vnukovo Airport.

The three prisoners, dressed in leather jackets and jeans, looked haunted and tense but not in ill health as they sat beside him together with their mothers. "The boys did not even think they would be freed today," Shchekhochikhin said.

"There is no diplomacy going on, no talks. We are not told what is going on," he said. His newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, eventually raised the money from Stolichny Bank to fly the soldiers to Moscow. "We see real injustice. We are saving the boys ourselves because we see things are so wrong," he said.

The Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, last month passed an amnesty for combatants in the 20-month war in Chechnya that was supposed to help free Russian and Chechen prisoners. Critics predicted the measure would do little to free prisoners, however, and so far they appear to be right.

It was only through a chance Chechen contact that Shchekhochikhin and the mothers of two of the soldiers obtained the release of the four Russian prisoners in exchange for two Chechens serving criminal sentences. The fourth Russian was released separately a few days ago.

The mothers of two of the prisoners voiced similar dissatisfaction with the Russian leadership. The soldiers' regiment had branded them as deserters and did nothing to help free them.

"The amnesty had no influence at all," Ludmilla Naumniko said.

Her son, Sergei, a 25-year-old conscript with the 205th Motor Rifle Brigade, was taken prisoner four months ago, but she only found out about it when a Chechen family called to say they were holding him prisoner. "She went to the military command headquarters, and they said I was still serving normally," Naumniko said.

An estimated 100 to 150 Russian soldiers are still being held prisoner in Chechnya, said Vyacheslav Izmailov, a Russian official who helps organize prisoner exchanges. In all 1,231 Russian soldiers are listed as missing in action from the war, but most of them are probably dead, he said. "There are 38 mothers still in Chechnya. They say they will not leave until they find their sons. They will probably die there of hunger," he said. As for the Chechens, 1,300 are listed as having disappeared in the war and also are probably dead, he said.

The three prisoners spoke with difficulty of their experiences. Konstantin Losev, a 20-year-old conscript from the Siberian mining town of Kemerovo, was held prisoner for nearly two years, including a stretch in the village of Bamut when it was under heavy bombardment.

Mikhail Lapko of Vologda, a 26-year-old warrant officer, nearly broke down as he tried to thank everyone who had helped win the prisoner's freedom. "Words cannot describe their nobility. When I spoke to my family -- I cannot describe it," he said, his voice cracking as he turned away.