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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wife Urges Chechens To Release Aid Worker




The wife of the French aid worker who has been in captivity in the republic of Chechnya for over 5 months made an emotional appeal in Moscow on Tuesday for her husband's release.


Vincent Cochetel, head of the regional office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, in the Caucasus republic of North Ossetia, was kidnapped from his house by three gunmen Jan. 29. Russian officials believe Cochetel, 37, was then moved to Chechen territory where he has been held ever since.


"It's been more than 150 days, and that's 150 days too much," said Florence Cochetel, 35, who was calm but visibly tense, at a press briefing Tuesday at UNHCR's Moscow office. "I refuse to keep waiting passively," she added, holding up photographs of the couple's two daughters, aged 5 and 7.


Florence Cochetel urged officials in charge of her husband's case to do more to ensure his quick and safe release. "I came here to make sure the Russian government together with French authorities are doing everything in order to immediately free Vincent," she said.


During a three-day stay in Moscow, Cochetel met with representatives of the Russian Ministries of Foreign and Internal Affairs, the Security Council and the Federal Security Service, the main successor organization to the KGB.


She said it is known for certain that her husband is alive and kept in captivity on Chechen territory. There has been no contact with the hostage-takers and no ransom demands have been received. Officials were not able to provide her with any further details on her husband's condition.


"We know that the group that kidnapped Vincent are professionals and the conditions of his liberation are complicated," she told reporters.


"As a humanitarian worker ... he risks his life and I find that particularly unfair. He helped people in need," said Florence Cochetel. "It's very difficult but we understand that we need to be patient."


She also said that the activities of the hostage-takers was damaging for Chechnya, which is struggling to revive its economy and restore order after its 21-month war with Moscow for independence.


"Chechnya is in a chaotic and difficult state," she said. "I'm sorry that actions of a small group of people are hurting the well-being of a whole nation which has already suffered a lot ... I'm especially concerned about women and children."


Vincent Cochetel was posted to the North Caucasus in 1996. His duties at UNHCR's regional office in the North Ossetian capital, Vladikavkaz, included providing assistance and distribution of humanitarian aid to some 100,000 forced migrants from Chechnya, Georgia, Ingushetia and North Ossetia.


The UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata called for the immediate release of Cochetel. To mark the third month of his captivity, on April 29, friends and relatives of the abducted diplomat organized a silent march from the UNHCR building to the Place des Nations in Geneva.


Tens of people have been kidnapped in Chechnya and neighboring republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia since the end of the war. As a consequence, the region has become a virtual no-go zone for aid workers, journalists and potential investors.


Shamil Basayev, the leading Chechen field commander who was appointed the republic's Prime Minister last January, announced at the start of the year that he would put a stop to the abductions within six months, but his promises to broker the handover of the hostages had little result.


The Kremlin reacted with anger last month when its representative in Chechnya, Valentin Vlasov, was kidnapped by unknown gunmen. In spite of repeated pledges from the Chechen government to track down his captors, he remains in captivity.


Foreigners have been particularly heavily targeted because kidnappers expect that their home countries will pay out hefty ransoms to secure their release.


Among the foreigners still in captivity in Chechnya are two British employees of the Center for Peacemaking and Community Development, Jon James and Camilla Carr, who were abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny, last July. Two Hungarians are also being held.


Four French citizens from the aid agency EquiLibre were seized in August 1997 as they were driving in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. The four were freed after their abductors received a $3.5 million ransom.


Swedish missionaries Daniel and Paulina Brolin were released last week after spending six months as hostages. The Swedish authorities refused to disclose if a ransom had been paid. Swiss engineer Peter Zollinger was freed earlier in June, reportedly after his family paid a ransom of up to $500,000.


Christophe Andr? of the French branch of Med?cins Sans Fronti?res was snatched by kidnappers from his house in the Ingush capital, Nazran, last July, and immediately driven to Chechnya. MSF was reportedly close to paying a ransom, but Andre managed to slip away from his captors and escape.