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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suspected British Mercenary on Trial

APYusuf Said Saltai, who earlier called himself John Benini, sitting in the defendants' cage during the trial Thursday in Makhachkala.
A man accused of serving as a British mercenary for the Chechen rebels went on trial Thursday in Dagestan. But the judge postponed the case after the suspect declared he also held Algerian citizenship and had given investigators a fictitious name.

The suspect, whom investigators initially identified as John Benini, testified in the Dagestani Supreme Court that his name was in fact Yusuf Said Saltai and that he holds dual citizenship.

Speaking in English, he said he had worked as a sales clerk in London for 15 years and had a French wife and 2-year-old son, Judge Ata Atayev said by telephone from Makhachkala.

The suspect had earlier told investigators that he had worked as a guard in Scotland Yard.

He told the court that he was born in Algeria and had lived there for 20 years.

"Saltai told us that he initially made up a story because he feared he would be killed on the spot by the police, who suspected him of being a foreign mercenary fighting with Chechen rebels," Atayev said.

In an attempt to prove his new identity, Saltai asked for permission to place a call to London. After Atayev agreed, a local reporter offered use of his cellphone. However, Saltai's attempts to call failed because the local mobile phone provider does not allow international calls.

Asked about his two passports, Saltai said he had lost them in Chechnya, Atayev said.

"Starting Monday, investigators will contact Algerian and British authorities to check the defendant's new identity," he said.

Saltai had given investigators a London address where he said he lived. British officials said at the time that the address was fictitious.

Atayev said further efforts to work with Britain had proven fruitless.

Calls to the British Embassy went unanswered Thursday.

Saltai was detained in November near Dagestan's border with Chechnya, according to the Federal Security Service, or FSB.

Detained with him were two other men, Sergei Tiunov, a former Russian serviceman who the FSB said had converted to Islam, and Mukhtar Ismailov, an ethnic Chechen living in Dagestan.

FSB officials said the men were carrying explosives, detonators, radio equipment, a Kalashnikov assault rifle, grenades and ammunition.

Tiunov later told a news conference organized by the FSB that he and his companions had been sent to Dagestan by Chechen warlord Khattab to assassinate Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov. The prosecutor general was in Dagestan presiding over the trial of Chechen warlord Salman Raduyev at that time.

Prosecutors charged the man they thought to be Benini with participating in an illegal armed formation, illegal possession of arms and drugs and illegally entering Russia, a spokeswoman for the Dagestani prosecutor's office said by telephone.

Saltai told the court Thursday he was not guilty of any of the charges.

Ismailov, who was also on trial Thursday and sat beside Saltai in the defendants' cage, was charged with participating in an illegal armed formation and illegal possession of arms and drugs, the prosecutor's office spokeswoman said.

If convicted, Ismailov and Saltai each face up to 10 years in prison.

They were also initially charged with plotting to kill Ustinov, but that charge was later dropped, the spokeswoman said. Tiunov's case was sent to military prosecutors in the Northern Caucasus military district, she added, without elaborating.

The trial is to continue Monday without Saltai.