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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Grozny Won't Release 4 Hostages' Remains

GROZNY -- Chechnya was embroiled in a macabre public dispute Tuesday over when the remains of four kidnapped Westerners would be handed over to the British and New Zealand authorities.

Chechen chief prosecutor Mansur Tagirov said Chechnya planned to hand over the severed heads of Britons Darren Hickey, Peter Kennedy and Rudi Petschi and New Zealander Stan Shaw only once their bodies had been recovered.

The four telecommunications engineers, who were installing a cellular phone system in Chechnya, were kidnapped in Grozny in early October by 20 armed gunmen. Their heads were displayed on a Chechen roadside Dec. 8, and officials said they were killed after a botched raid to free them.

Their bodies have never been found. Russian media reported that the Chechen gang behind the gruesome executions has issued a $2,000 ransom demand for the return of each headless body, but this was denied in Grozny.

Tagirov's statement came after Chechen presidential spokesman Mayerbek Vachagayev was quoted by Russian television as saying the heads would be flown to Moscow on Tuesday.

Tagirov said he had written to the British authorities telling them that Grozny would not be handing over body parts but would return the dead men's complete remains.

"Yesterday we heard the bodies had been found, but the information was not confirmed," said the chief prosecutor, who is heading Chechnya's investigation. "I forbid officials from making statements on when the bodies will be returned to the English."

Earlier Tuesday, NTV television cited Vachagayev as saying the heads would be handed over in either Moscow or Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

The presidential aide made a similar claim Monday, only to say the transfer had been pushed back to "later this week" for unspecified "technical reasons."

The British Embassy in Moscow said it had received no official notification from the Chechen or Russian authorities.

"This business of sending the heads today was news to us because nobody had told us about this and they still have not," chief spokesman Mike Haddock said.

"Nobody has given us any details so we have to go on the assumption that the Chechens are still doing all they can to find the entire bodies ... and return all the parts to the U.K."

The killing of the four Westerners highlighted the instability that has plagued Chechnya since it won de facto independence from Russia in August 1996 after a brutal 21-month war.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has struggled to assert his authority over the North Caucasus republic since his election in January 1997, and is currently locked in a bitter power struggle with leading warlords who won prominence in the war with Moscow.