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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechen Leader Blames Botched Rescue

Chechen police were searching Wednesday for the bodies of four kidnapped foreigners who were beheaded during a botched attempt to free them.

The deaths - and the ostentatious display of the heads by the killers - prompted neighboring Russian regions to close off roads into Chechnya, and caused an outpouring of outrage from Russian and foreign officials.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said one suspected kidnapper had been arrested and authorities gleaned enough information to launch a rescue operation for the hostages, three Britons and a New Zealander.

But during the rescue attempt the kidnappers panicked and decapitated the captives, he said Wednesday.

"A particular criminal group was identified, an organizer of the abductions was arrested and an approximate location of the hostages was determined," Maskhadov, wearing military fatigues, said at a news conference, Interfax reported. "The criminals brutally executed the hostages while an operation for their release was under way."

The severed heads of the four men were found lined up along a highway Tuesday outside Chechnya's capital, Grozny, and hundreds of Chechen law enforcement officers were searching for the bodies Wednesday.

The victims - Britons Peter Kennedy, Darren Hickey, and Rudolf Petschi, and New Zealand's Stanley Shaw - were identified by their former bodyguard. They had been abducted by unidentified gunmen Oct. 3 in Grozny. The three Britons were employees of a private British telecommunications provider, Granger Telecom, and the New Zealander was working on contract for the firm. The men were working with Chechnya's communications firm, Chechen Telecom, to provide the rebel republic with a modern telephone system to link it with the rest of the world.

The Chechen Telecom office was attacked before dawn Wednesday by assailants using grenade launchers. One guard was wounded, security officials said. Several Chechen Telecom employees have been kidnapped in recent days.

It was not clear if there was any link between Wednesday's attack and the deaths of the hostages.

However, there have been reports that rival groups in Chechnya were seeking money from the lucrative contract to rebuild the country's phone system, which was devastated during the 1994-96 war for independence from Russia. About 1,500 mobile phones are now the republic's only telephone connection to the world and thus the work to install a new system was considered vital, Maskhadov spokesman Mayabek Vachigayev said.

Vachigayev suggested that if Granger Telecom pulls out of its contract with Chechen Telecom, Chechnya would have little trouble finding another company to complete the work.

"Many firms wanted to obtain this contract," he said, citing Swedish and Irish telecommunications companies. "For the kind of profits they get in Chechnya, they willbe willing to risk the lives of their employees."

The murder of the four men was intended to show the Chechen president that he is not in control of the republic, his spokesman said.

"It's a stab in the back to President Maskhadov," said Vachigayev, who was in Moscow on Wednesday. "It's a much bigger tragedy for us than for Great Britain."

In his statement, Maskhadov said, "Certain forces want to isolate the young Chechen republic on the way to independence from the outside world, and foremost from jolly old England, with its culture and ancient traditions."

Maskhadov, who has been unable to restore law and order to Chechnya, pledged to "take all necessary steps to solve this horrible crime."

Meanwhile, three Russian regions bordering Chechnya blocked off all roads leading to and from the secessionist territory.

"The Chechen republic has been sealed off from all sides," Magomet Khatuyev, the head of Chechnya's border service, was cited by Interfax as saying.

Russia's Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov all offered Wednesday to provide Chechnya with any assistance to help solve the crime.

"The Russian government throughout has sought to be as helpful as it can within its power, but that power is very limited in Chechnya," said British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who met his Russian counterpart, Ivanov on Wednesday in Belgium.

British Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd told the House of Commons Wednesday that the situation in Chechnya is "unstable and confused" and said it wouldn't be wise to risk further lives by sending British officials into the region to investigate.

Prime Minister Tony Blair described the murder as "tragic and horrifying."

Russia's Foreign Ministry and Britain's Foreign Office reiterated their recommendation that foreigners not visit Chechnya.

The Chechen president said the "barbarous act, committed against foreign citizens who arrived in Chechnya, guests of the republic, internationalists, fills the souls of Chechens with hatred against those who staged this crime."

His spokesman, however, said the president became aware of the four men's presence in Chechnya only after they were abducted. Vachigayev said Britain should have done more to help Chechen authorities find the kidnapped men.

"We are not asking for recognition of our independence - it's good enough that we recognize ourselves. But they could have sent their cops or Interpol to help us ... establish order in the republic," he said.

Chechnya's prosecutor general, Mansur Tagirov, put forth a different explanation of the killings. He said the hostages were beheaded as a result of a fallout between two gangs, the one that did the kidnapping and another that guarded the hostages, RTR television reported. One of the gangs sought revenge after not getting its share of money obtained from ransom paid in another kidnapping case, RTR cited Tagirov as saying.

Since the war ended, Chechnya has been running its own affairs. But it has been plagued by criminal gangs and there are frequent kidnappings for ransom. Most hostages have been released unharmed, though dozens remain in captivity.

Swiss citizen Vincent Cochetel, a representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, was snatched by gunmen almost a year ago in North Ossetia and is still missing. American English teacher Herbert Gregg, has not been heard from since he was abducted Nov. 11 in Dagestan, another Russian region on Chechnya's border.

There also has been no news of two Hungarian and five Polish workers and a Turkish businessman who were abducted last year.

AP, Moscow Times