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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Family Pleads for Release of Dutch MSF Worker

ReutersArjan Erkel's father, Dick Erkel, attending the protest Tuesday near FSB headquarters.
Relatives and colleagues of a Dutch aid worker kidnapped in Dagestan demanded Tuesday that the Russian government make greater efforts to liberate him -- exactly a year since his disappearance.

Standing in drizzle and clutching a banner reading "Where's Arjan?" a group of about 30 people gathered outside the FSB headquarters calling on the Russian authorities to do more to free Arjan Erkel, 33, who was kidnapped Aug. 12, 2002.

"We want to appeal to the authorities to do the best they can to solve Arjan's case," his sister, Roos Erkel, said.

Erkel, who headed the North Caucasus mission of Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF, was snatched by three unidentified gunmen.

The aid worker's father, Dick Erkel, welcomed assurances made by President Vladimir Putin to Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende in May that Russia would deploy more resources to resolve the case but said it was time to do more.

"We are grateful for what they have done but we can only be satisfied when we get Arjan back," he said.

In November, authorities closed the investigation into Erkel's disappearance, but reopened the inquiry in May following pressure from the Dutch government.

MSF said the investigation into Erkel's kidnapping had been a "failure" and expressed its "indignation" at the lack of results in the inquiry.

"It is a scandal that, after one year, our colleague Arjan Erkel is still missing. This can only be attributed to the mishandling of the investigation and a lack of commitment by Russian authorities," the organization said in a statement.

The Dagestani prosecutor's office said Tuesday that it was continuing its investigation into Erkel's kidnapping.

"The investigation into the case continues. Law enforcement services are trying to trace both the abducted man and his abductors," spokesman Ali Temirbekov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

A report in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad last month said Erkel was being held in Chechnya, which borders Dagestan, and there had been numerous contacts between the Russian government and the kidnappers.

The report said Erkel was being watched by Russian authorities after he met with U.S. Embassy personnel in Dagestan last year, and that Russian intelligence agents witnessed his kidnapping but did not intervene.

The Dutch and U.S. embassies in Moscow delivered a letter to Putin on Tuesday, asking him to give the case his personal attention.

In Amsterdam, Erkel's family and supporters handed out "Forget Me Not" flowers to politicians in a plea for help, while Erkel's brother met the Dutch prime minister. Balkenende promised to raise the issue with U.S. President George W. Bush in a meeting scheduled in Washington next month.

The United Nations reiterated an appeal for Erkel's safe and immediate release and condemned his abduction. The International Committee of the Red Cross also released a statement calling for his release.

"Such actions undermine the effective provision of humanitarian assistance to the thousands of civilians in need in the North Caucasus," the UN Russia office said in a statement.

Last week, MSF said the Dutch Embassy in Moscow had received a videotape showing recent pictures of Erkel. The aid worker, who appeared to be in good health, spoke in Russian and asked for ransom money for his captors.

Erkel's brother Diederik said in Amsterdam that his brother appeared healthy on the videotape. "It was good to see him, but he looked tired and stressed," he said. "Afraid."

MSF has refused to pay a ransom because it says it would jeopardize the safety of other aid workers, but has not ruled out a nonmonetary exchange for Erkel's freedom.

MSF is no longer active in Dagestan since Erkel's kidnapping, but it maintains an office with a few local staff as a place for the kidnappers to make contact. So far that hasn't happened, MSF spokeswoman Marieke Zalm said in Amsterdam.

Erkel studied business logistics and cultural anthropology. The MSF mission he ran in Dagestan gave medical aid to refugees who fled fighting in Chechnya and also helped distribute medical supplies to local hospitals.

Erkel "knows how to make good contact with people quickly," Diederik Erkel said. "He's such an open person, it would be crazy if he didn't have some rapport" with the kidnappers.

He said that at 1.86 meters with blond hair, his brother had likely been "walking bait" for kidnappers. "He was at the wrong place in the wrong time," he said.