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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Western Hostages Beheaded in Chechnya

GROZNY -- The severed heads of four kidnapped foreigners were discovered neatly lined up beside a highway in Chechnya on Tuesday after a rescue attempt apparently went wrong.

The whereabouts of the bodies of the three Britons and a New Zealander, engineers who had been installing telephone lines across Chechnya, was unclear.

While kidnappings, usually for ransom, have become widespread in Chechnya since the end of its 1994-96 war for independence from Russia, hostages are rarely killed - particularly foreigners. The gruesome slaying stunned even Chechen officials, and is likely to aggravate Chechnya's attempts to gain international recognition of its independence.

The deaths were apparently the result of a rescue attempt by Chechen authorities Monday night that went "tragically wrong," said Ray Verth, chief executive of Granger Telecom, the British company the hostages had worked for.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said Chechen officials had caught one of the kidnappers Monday and he told police where the hostages were being held. But that information reached the other captors, who decided to kill their captives, Itar-Tass quoted Maskhadov as saying.

An Associated Press reporter saw the decapitated heads Tuesday near the village of Assinovskaya, about 40 kilometers west of Grozny, the Chechen capital. He did not see any sign of the bodies.

The heads were lined up on a piece of cloth along a main highway across southern Russia, in plain view of passers-by. Two of the heads had wounds to the temple, possibly gunshot wounds.

The victims - Britons Peter Kennedy, Darren Hickey and Rudolf Petschi, and Stanley Shaw from New Zealand - were identified by Umar Makhauri, who was their bodyguard when they were abducted Oct. 3 by unidentified gunmen in Grozny. He said the bodies had not been found.

Maskhadov, however, said in Grozny that the bodies of four men had been recovered.

The heads were taken to the Central Republican Hospital in Grozny, officials said.

Verth said his company had "opened a dialogue with the kidnappers and received confirmation that the hostages were alive as recently as last week."

"Their murder is an appalling and barbaric act and our thoughts go out to the families, to whom we offer our deepest condolences. We are a small tightly knit company and everyone here is in a state of shock," Verth said Tuesday outside company headquarters in Weybridge, south of London, where flags were flying at half-staff.

Eamon Hickey, the father of one of the missing men, said at his home in England: "There is so much rumor and counter-rumor coming from out there that we don't know what to think. Obviously we are hoping and praying that it does not turn out to be true."

President Boris Yeltsin expressed outrage at the killings and urged law enforcement officials to crack down on kidnapping, presidential spokesman Dmitry Yakushkin told reporters.

Yeltsin also warned foreigners to avoid unsanctioned visits to Chechnya.

Maskhadov said the killings were a major blow to Chechnya.

"I am ready to answer before my people and the whole world for what happened," he was quoted as saying by Interfax.

He blamed the rash of abductions in Chechnya on unidentified "outside forces" and their Chechen henchmen.

At the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow, Consul Graham McGuire said it appeared there was little doubt that the hostages were dead.

"This whole business is tragic. The reports cast no doubt that these were the hostages, but we are waiting for the completion of the identification process," he said by telephone. "Our hearts go out to all those involved."

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the British government will "work hard to find out the truth."

"We need to know what happened and what is being done to bring justice to those who committed such repugnant murders," Cook said in a statement issued by the British Embassy.

"I strongly repeat our long-standing advice on Chechnya," the statement said. "British citizens are not safe there and should stay away."

British officials said they had not received any ransom demand for the missing men.

Since the beginning of 1998, 176 people have been kidnapped in the North Caucasus region of Russia, including dozens of foreigners, and 90 of them released, officials have said.

***The Moscow Times contributed to this report.***