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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gunmen Snatch Dutch Worker

APArjan Erkel, a Dutch employee of MSF
Three armed, masked men abducted a Dutch employee of Medecins Sans Frontieres as he drove on the outskirts of Dagestan's capital, police said Tuesday. It was the second kidnapping of an aid worker in the North Caucasus in recent weeks.

Arjan Erkel, 32, who headed MSF's field office in Dagestan, was abducted late Monday after dropping off his interpreter, Aminat Gunasheva, at her dacha just south of Makhachkala, said a spokesman for the Dagestani police.

Three masked men, two of them armed, stopped the Ford minivan with Erkel and his driver as it pulled out of the dacha settlement, forced the Dutchman from the car and whisked him away in a white Lada, said spokesman Abdul Musayev. Erkel was beaten during the abduction, he said.

Police conducted intensive searches at checkpoints around Makhachkala on Monday night after the driver reported the abduction, but came up empty-handed, Musayev said.

Members of the local MSF team told investigators Tuesday that they had received kidnapping threats, the deputy chief prosecutor of Dagestan, Magomed Abdulkhalikov, said on ORT television.

"We aren't ruling out any motive," he said. "The abductors might be looking for ransom or for political benefits."

Musayev said no ransom had been demanded for Erkel as of Tuesday afternoon. Kate de Rivero, a spokeswoman for MSF in Moscow, said the organization had not been contacted by Erkel's abductors.

Abdulkhalikov said investigators were looking into the possibility that Erkel's driver had been an accomplice in the kidnapping. The driver -- police released only his first name, Khadzhi-Murad -- was detained Tuesday. The police spokesman said that it was done for security reasons as he remains the main witness of the abduction.

Another MSF driver told ORT that Erkel's driver also had been beaten and threatened by the assailants.

Employees in the MSF office in Makhachkala, contacted Tuesday by telephone, refused to talk.

Five foreign staff members were assigned to the Makhachkala office, de Rivero said, but she was unsure whether all of them were currently in Dagestan.

MSF will withdraw part of its expatriate team from Makhachkala but will leave one foreign officer there to work with local authorities on Erkel's release, MSF spokesman Michel Clerc said by telephone from Geneva.

In the meantime, MSF will suspend its humanitarian activities in Dagestan, he said.The group provides assistance to refugees from Chechnya living in Dagestan.

The high-profile kidnapping unsettled the Dagestani establishment.

Magomedali Magomedov, the leader of the republic, held an emergency meeting with Dagestani authorities and demanded that they step up the search for Erkel, Eduard Urazayev, spokesman for the Dagestani government, said by telephone.

Mukhu Aliyev, the speaker of the republic's parliament, told Interfax that the abduction could have political motives -- to demonstrate to the world how unstable the situation is in the North Caucasus, especially in Dagestan.

"The abduction was a serious blow to the republic's reputation," Dagestan's external relations minister, Magomedsalikh Gusayev, said in a telephone interview. "Dagestan has just begun to recover from the complications of the conflict in neighboring Chechnya, and after a long time good news from here began to appear in the press, and now this abduction and the terrorist attack in Kaspiisk have spoiled everything."

More than 40 people died in an explosion during a Victory Day parade in the Dagestani town of Kaspiisk. A Chechen warlord of Dagestani origin has been blamed.

Gusayev said he had developed friendly relations with Erkel, who arrived in Dagestan in February, and described him as an inquisitive, polite and well-disposed young man.

The federal minister for Chechnya, Vladimir Yelagin, was shown on NTV television Tuesday demanding better protection for international aid workers and saying that Erkel's abduction was aimed at destabilizing the situation in Chechnya.

Foreign aid workers have often been the target of kidnappings in the North Caucasus.

MSF had an American employee, Kenneth Gluck, abducted in Chechnya in January 2001. He was released 25 days later.

Just last month, Nina Davidovich, a Russian aid worker with the UN-affiliated group Druzhba, was kidnapped by masked gunmen while traveling from the Chechen capital to neighboring Ingushetia.

Dagestan's capital has gained notoriety as a kidnappers' hunting ground. At least seven foreigners have been kidnapped there in the last five years.

The most audacious abduction happened in August 1997, when four foreign workers of the French aid group Equilibre were seized in downtown Makhachkala in broad daylight. They were released three months later for what Dagestani officials said then was a multimillion dollar ransom.

All international aid agencies, except the International Committee of the Red Cross, withdrew from the republic then. MSF was the only one to return, in late 1999, after the second military conflict erupted in Chechnya and refugees started to pour into Dagestan.

Magomed Tolboyev, the former head of the Dagestani security council and a mediator in many kidnappings, said Tuesday he had advised the returning MSF team on security.

"I told them then not to trust anybody, not to go out unless it was an urgent necessity and not to believe in police efficiency," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "And most of all, I told them to make friends with local influential personalities, meaning that such friendships, not law enforcers, are the best protection in Dagestan."

According to statistics released by the Interior Ministry in late 2001, about 700 people were registered as being held hostage in the North Caucasus. The actual number may be considerably higher as victims' relatives often do not report kidnappings to authorities for fear of reprisals from the kidnappers.