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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Boy Set Free After 2 Years in Captivity




MOZDOK, North Ossetia -- This story has a happy ending, but as Sveta Zugayeva prepared coffee in her kitchen earlier this month she had no idea how it would turn out.


Two months before, her son had telephoned. It was only the second call since he was kidnapped in March 1998, and he had very little time to speak.


"My husband spoke to him. He said, 'Papa, I'm sick. Get me out of here. They want $200,000.' Then they took away the phone and the Chechen fighter came back on the line.


"My husband started to tell him we just don't have that kind of money. They slammed down the phone," she recounted in her home in Mozdok, a town just outside Chechnya. "It has been so long. Kazbek already had a Chechen accent."


The captors called back weeks later. This time they wanted $800,000. "I have no more tears left," Zugayeva said.


Despite six months of war aimed at restoring order to Chechnya, more than 200 hostages are still being held by gangs who seized them in a kidnapping epidemic that has terrorized southern Russia for three years.


Some of the victims still being held have received international attention: a Russian general, a French photographer.


But the overwhelming majority remain as little known as Kazbek Zugayev, who was a lanky, cheerful 13-year-old when he disappeared one day on his way home from school.


With the war reaching its least predictable phase, the desperation of the victims' families has grown.


Russian troops have surrounded or entered every village in Chechnya. Although rebels continue to fight from the mountains, there are fewer places for the kidnappers to hide. And fewer reasons to keep their hostages alive.


For two years, Zugayeva and her husband had devoted all their energy and resources to finding their son. Before the war began last year "we never left Chechnya," she said.


They met top rebel commanders. They sold their house and moved to a smaller one to raise money. They paid thousands of dollars to shady intermediaries. To one group of rebels they gave two cars.


"They told us, we will find your son. We just need something to drive around in while we are looking."


Eventually they learned that Kazbek was being held in Martan-Chu, a village in southern Chechnya. When Russian forces took the village, they waited and hoped.


Last month, there was a breakthrough. Oleg Yemiliantsev, a Russian-Israeli fruit trader, was freed in Martan-Chu. He had spent the last four months of nearly three years in captivity alongside Kazbek.


"The owner of the house where they were keeping us came in and said, 'The Russians are doing a sweep. Move it!'" Yemiliantsev, 41, said by telephone from Israel.


He and Kazbek were taken to separate houses. A few hours later Yemiliantsev was driven alone to a Russian headquarters building and thrown into the street. He didn't know what happened to Kazbek.


Yemiliantsev's own ordeal was brutal. He was frequently beaten. One day his captors filmed a ransom video. In front of the camera, with a knife, they sliced off the middle finger of his left hand.


The boy was better treated, he said. "They didn't hurt him. A kid is just a kid after all."


The Zugayevs had no way of knowing why Yemiliantsev was freed and Kazbek was not.


They waited for the phone to ring. They wrote letters. They met families of others who had disappeared, sometimes to discuss strategy, sometimes just to have somebody to talk to.


Days after the conversation in the kitchen, Russian intelligence agents contacted the Zugayevs and said they had good news. After two years in captivity, Kazbek was free.


"We couldn't believe it at first," Sveta Zugayeva said Tuesday. "We thought it might be another false alarm."


The reunion took place at Chechnya's border.


"We drove up in our car, and he got out of his. I - I have no words to describe what it was like."


Kazbek described the day of his release.


"The guys who were holding me came in and said: 'A sweep is starting. Get out of here. Go!'" he said by telephone.


He went first to a group of Chechen militia, who alerted the Russians. They called his parents.


"I'm going to rest for a few more days, and then I'll go back to school," Kazbek said.


Federal troops seized Komsomolskoye in southern Chechnya on Tuesday after nine days of fierce battles, Itar-Tass reported. They were searching Wednesday for Ruslan Gelayev and his fighters, who seized the village March 6.


Komsomolskoye has been blasted to pieces and few houses remain intact. Apart from quelling resistance, the military has been eager to capture Gelayev. Guerrilla leaders have regularly slipped through Russian lines.


"Komsomolskoye is Gelayev's home village and there are reports that he, his wife and his sisters are hiding somewhere in a cellar," Itar-Tass quoted Colonel-General Alexander Baranov as saying.


Acting President Vladimir Putin met pro-Moscow Chechen officials to discuss the rebuilding of the shattered region.


He complained that money set aside for seeding crops, 342 million rubles ($12 million), had not arrived in Chechnya. A government official said the funds had got stuck in a neighboring region.