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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gunmen Grab French UN Official in North Ossetia

GENEVA, Switzerland -- The United Nations refugee agency appealed Friday for the immediate release of a French staff member kidnapped overnight from his home in southern Russia by three masked gunmen.

Spokesman Kris Janowski of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, condemned the abduction of Vincent Cochetel, head of UNHCR's office in Vladikavkaz, capital of North Ossetia.

The kidnappers' motives were unknown and no group had claimed responsibility or made demands, although the gunmen had searched his apartment for valuables, the spokesman said.

"UNHCR condemns this new act of violence against staff of a humanitarian agency and appeals for his immediate release," Janowski said at a news briefing in Geneva. "We will do whatever we can do to ensure he is freed safe and sound."

In Moscow, a Russian Interior Ministry official said: "We believe he is alive and that he was taken hostage for a ransom. Judging by similar developments, in about two weeks the conditions for his release will be announced. They usually need this time to settle somewhere, look around and establish contact."

Cochetel, 37, who is married with two young children, was kidnapped in Vladikavkaz at about 11 p.m. Wednesday night as he returned to his apartment with his driver after a dinner with local officials, the UNHCR spokesman said.

Police launched an investigation once the driver, left tied up in the apartment, notified them after freeing himself from ropes, Janowski said. A UNHCR regional security officer has gone to Vladikavkaz to help the inquiry.

Cochetel, from the Loire Valley region of France, is the first UN official kidnapped in North Ossetia, although aid workers have been victims of violence in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, he said.

Cochetel served in Turkey, Slovakia and France before heading the UNHCR office in Vladikavkaz, which is responsible for refugees in the Northern Caucasus, including returnees to Chechnya.