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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Odd Events Preceded Kidnapping in Ossetia

VLADIKAVKAZ, Southern Russia -- UN staff in North Ossetia suffered a string of incidents, including being trailed to the bank, in the weeks before the kidnap of local mission chief Vincent Cochetel, a UN official said Tuesday.

Over the past month, UNHCR staff have had the locks on their apartments tampered with and received a spate of mystery telephone calls, the acting head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' mission said.

North Ossetia's new president, Alexander Dzasokhov, said he had ordered strict security checks along the republic's borders and was in touch with neighboring security forces.

The president said he had set up a special task force to oversee the investigation into the 37-year-old Frenchman's abduction, which reports to him several times daily.

The UNHCR's acting chief conceded Thursday's kidnapping was the culmination of a series of bizarre events that had bothered staff in the tiny North Caucasus republic.

"Very recently there were some incidents which we reported to the police and the security organizations," said the official, who asked not to be identified.

"Colleagues withdrawing money from the bank have been followed to the bank," he said. "Somebody's apartment lock was tampered with and a key broken in the door. Other staff have not been able to open their apartments and have had to move."

Investigators have linked the abduction of Cochetel, UNHCR mission chief in North Ossetia for the past 16 months, to the withdrawal by UN staff of a large sum of cash from a Vladikavkaz bank to pay the organization's wage bill.

The UN refugee agency employs some 11 expatriate and 40 local staff in the turbulent North Caucasus.

Security officials believe the kidnappers may have been tipped off about the withdrawal.

UN staff have now been grouped in a city hotel for their own safety and have escorts when they travel around Vladikavkaz at night.

Dzasokhov said he would meet Wednesday with John Horekens, UNHCR's European director, who flew to the region Sunday to help with the investigation and to comfort the staff.

Currently, the UN refugee agency helps more than 100,000 refugees or people internally displaced by conflicts in the region. Its $5 million budget makes it the biggest UNHCR operation in Russia.