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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Captive Freed From Chechnya




Just days after four Western hostages were beheaded in Chechnya, French aid worker Vincent Cochetel was freed in a shootout after almost 11 months of captivity.


Cochetel, 37, was freed Saturday near the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia when Russian and local security forces killed three of his captors. Two of his rescuers were wounded in the exchange of fire.


He was quickly flown to Moscow and then on to Geneva where he fell into the arms of his overjoyed relatives. His wife, parents and three siblings were waiting in a sealed-off room at Cointrin Airport, where Cochetel, who had lost 22 kilograms, spent around 15 minutes before being whisked to a Geneva hospital.


His wife, Florence, said Monday that he was recovering well and may be able to leave the hospital in several days.


"He is in the hands of doctors and a psychologist, he is doing very well, he is recovering very quickly and he has an enormous need to talk after being alone for so long," she said.


Cochetel was always alone throughout his captivity, his father, Alain, said at a news conference after greeting his son at the airport Saturday night.


In a telephone conversation with French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, which was replayed for the press, Cochetel said he was kept chained in the dark for all but 20 minutes a day. His kidnappers often moved him from place to place.


The Russian government took credit for the rescue of Cochetel, who headed operations for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz until his abduction Jan. 29 from his residence.


Television stations broadcast film of the operation to free the Frenchman, who was being driven by his captors from Chechnya toward the border with the Russian republic of Ingushetia when the Russian troops opened fire.


Cochetel was to have been handed over to the Russian authorities and the use of force was not planned, the French ambassador in Moscow, Hubert Colin, said.


He said no ransom had been promised and he did not explain why the kidnappers had agreed to free their hostage. The kidnappers had demanded a ransom of $2 million to $5 million, a UNHCR worker said.


Emaciated and wearing a thick beard, Cochetel said on Russian television upon arrival in Moscow that the rescue operation had lasted five minutes. "It is the first time people have risked their lives to save mine and I owe them a lot," he said.


He has otherwise so far not met with the press.


An earlier attempt to free Cochetel in April failed, and Moscow apparently saw its authority in the Caucasus on the line with this latest operation.


Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov congratulated the Interior Ministry


on its "great success" in freeing Cochetel.


Cochetel's release was all the more welcome to his family, coming as it did just days after the severed heads were found of three Britons and a New Zealander who had been seized in Grozny, the Chechen capital, in October.


The four telecommunications engineers were the first Western hostages to be killed in Chechnya, where kidnapping for ransom is rife.


The Chechen government has ordered the arrest of local warlord


Arbi Barayev for their murder. "We have sufficient proof to allow us to send the case to the Supreme Sharia Court," Mansur Tagirov, the chief prosecutor, said on local television.


Barayev went on television Sunday to insist he had "no link to these


crimes."


Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov launched his own crackdown on the kidnapping gangs Sunday and ordered reserve troops and veterans of the 1994-96 independence war to report for duty. Deputy Prime Minister Turpal Atgeriyev, security chief in the lawless republic, said Monday that some 1,300 reservists had already responded to the call-up.


Troops put up checkpoints across Chechnya and were carrying out systematic identity checks along the republic's main roads and in its principle settlements, Atgeriyev said. The operation had so far netted four murder suspects, officials said.


But Chechnya's parliament on Monday questioned the legality of Maskhadov's move. Russian news agencies said deputies voiced support for tough measures against crime, but they doubted Maskhadov had the constitutional right to mobilize men unless Chechnya faced an external threat, and decided to discuss the matter again on Tuesday when more deputies were expected to attend.


About 100 hostages, including businessmen, aid workers, an American


missionary and the wife of a U.S. businessman are currently being held hostage across the northern Caucasus.