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Sunday Times (UK)
June 15, 2003
My days of hell with the doomed Britons

In 1998 three Britons and a New Zealander were kidnapped, tortured and beheaded by Chechen rebels. The world has known little of their ordeal, but now Magomed Chaguchiev, who spent 57 days with them in captivity, reveals to Margarette Driscoll how they met their terrible fate

There was no way of knowing whether it was night or day when the four men were dragged into the cell. Magomed Chaguchiev found out only later that they had been wrestled from their beds in an early morning raid.

Darren Hickey, Peter Kennedy, Rudolph Petschi and Stanley Shaw three Brits and a New Zealander were half-naked, bloodied and disoriented from being beaten by their Chechen captors. The four telephone engineers had got caught up in Chechnyas bloody internal war in the most horrifying and brutal way.

On October 3, 1998 they were kidnapped from the house they were sharing in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Two months later just as their families were daring to hope that they might be home by Christmas their bearded, severed heads were found in a sack by the roadside close to the Russian border.

Chaguchiev, 65, a professor of mathematics and a political activist in Moscow, was held with them in an underground cell for 57 days. He flew to London last week to assist their families in a compensation claim against Granger Telecom, the Surrey-based company that employed them. This is the first time he has spoken publicly about their ordeal and his.

I not only suffered myself as a captive but I lost my son to this conflict, so I understand the pain, he said. What concerns me now is justice, for these families and for the thousands who have been killed in Chechnya.

The claim was settled at the last moment for an undisclosed sum believed to run into millions so Chaguchiev was cheated of the opportunity to tell his story in court. But before he returned to Moscow he was able to talk to the widows of Petschi and Shaw, who are still haunted by their husbands horrific deaths.

Chaguchievs account of how the men were beaten, starved and tortured cannot have been easy for them to hear. But, five years on, exactly why the men were murdered remains a mystery it was once thought to be the result of a bungled rescue attempt but that now seems uncertain and the families understandably cannot rest until they know what happened.

Winning compensation was a relief, said Louisa Petschi, but it wont get rid of the sleepless nights. We still havent got answers to so many of our questions. We want to know the truth.

Chaguchiev was kidnapped while trying to rescue his son. Rustam, 23, disappeared in November 1997 after an evening out with a friend near the family home in Dagestan. Chaguchiev knows now that his son was killed soon after being kidnapped. But when an acquaintance in neighbouring Chechnya telephoned to say that Rustam was being held by a rebel gang who were demanding a $1.5m ransom he had to act.

I said I didnt have that kind of money. He said he would help me, said Chaguchiev. It was crazy, maybe, to go to Chechnya.

I half-thought even then that Rustam had been killed, but as a father you cant let go. I was prepared to fight for my son, so when I got the call I went straight away.

Chaguchiev travelled with his elder son Raoul, 30, and Adulchar, a cousin. When they reached the Dagestan-Chechnya border they were grabbed by men in two vehicles. They were held in one of a network of underground cells.

We were in a pit, an underground pit, with a reinforced metal door that was always locked. We never knew how many people were held in the cells, probably around 100, he said.

The gangs and the government, as it wasnt a real state, just bandit territory survived on ransom money extorted from victims families.

For several weeks we were alone. Then, in early October, they brought in the engineers. They were disoriented; they had been asleep in their beds when the gang broke in. They had been beaten so badly that they were very depressed and down, beyond fear. We talked to them through the Englishman Rudi Petschi, who spoke Russian and tried to bring them back to normality, but we all lived in fear. Our captors told us, Whoever gets the ransom gets released. We knew the others would be killed.

Hickey, 26, from Thames Ditton, had worked two short stints in Chechnya before setting off for his final tour of duty in mid-September. Petschi, an intepreter, had worked with the Royal Signals Corps for 20 years before signing up with Granger Telecom. Shaw, 58, a New Zealander who lived in Surrey, arrived at the end of September. They were then joined by Kennedy, a freelance consultant, who was supposed to be in Chechnya for only 10 days.

There were reports at the time that the men were paid danger money but their families say this is rubbish. Wed barely heard of Chechnya, said Louisa Petschi. None of us knew how dangerous it was.

The men were said to have been in a secure compound with metal gates and armed guards. In reality they were put up in a corner house exposed to the street on two sides and with a garden leading onto waste ground. When 20 armed men surrounded the house at 4am, they were like sitting ducks.

In captivity they were badly treated. Every couple of days they were beaten with gun butts, truncheons, broken bottles and chains. They were shown videos of the dead bodies of other victims and some in the act of being murdered. The kidnappers wanted to extract confessions: from Chaguchiev, that he was really a security forces general; from the British men that they were spies.

At some point the gunmen succeeded: a video was made of the British men, dressed in military uniforms, confessing. Kennedy was the only one who spoke, saying they had installed a satellite aerial so that all the telephone conversations in Chechnya were heard by the British and Israeli secret services and that their ultimate purpose was to thwart the spread of Islam.

Petschi, 42, from Cullompton, Devon, took the worst of it as he spoke Russian and was therefore seen as a natural leader. He was the most courageous man I have ever met, said Chaguchiev. He was erudite, calm and collected. He managed to maintain his balance and dignity through it all.

Cold and starved, the men tried to do push-ups to maintain their strength. They were given a bucket of water and a loaf of bread between four once a week. Chaguchiev weighed 18 stone when he was captured, 10st 12lb on release.

In November Chakar, Chaguchievs wife who had no idea whether he was still alive, was contacted and told to raise a ransom. Chaguchiev will not say how much it was, only that many friends helped to raise the money. In early November he and Petschi were taken to the telephone.

Chaguchiev spoke to his wife who told him she was trying to raise the money. Petschi spoke to his company. After that call he knew they were doomed there would be no ransom, said Chaguchiev. But he did not tell the others. Later they came and put a sack over my head. I did not say goodbye. I was sure they were going to kill me.

Instead, he was released (his son and cousin were released later). A week later, at home in Moscow, he turned on the television news and saw the heads of the four men he had been living with. It took me days to get over the shock, he said. I still cant sleep peacefully. I need to spend a lot of time alone.

The Chechen war, characterised by hostage-taking, ransom demands, gruesome murders and suicide attacks, has been rumbling away for the best part of a decade. The beheading of the British engineers and the siege of a Moscow theatre last October, in which 120 people died (mostly by gas used against the terrorists), have made the most impact here, but kidnappings and suicide attacks continue day after day.

Chechen rebels regard themselves as freedom fighters trying to extricate themselves from the Muscovite yoke. The Russians see them as hard-edged Muslim fundamentalists and their own presence in Chechnya as part of the global war on terror.

The gulf between the two sides was apparent in a second London court last week as the Russian government began a fight to extradite Akhmed Zakayev, the man they have nicknamed their own Osama Bin Laden.

The rebel leader, a former actor who has been living in Britain since December as a guest of Vanessa Redgrave, the actress, is wanted in Russia on 13 charges relating to his role in the conflict. Some allege that he murdered or tortured victims, others that he ordered his men to murder, wound and hostage-take in battles in Chechnya, particularly in Grozny.

Zakayev maintains that he is a moderate and therefore a real political threat to Russia and that the charges against him have been trumped up. Either way, the case is an embarrassment to Tony Blair, awaiting a visit from President Putin, the first state visit to Britain by a Russian leader since the 1870s.

Chaguchiev says that while he was imprisoned his wife telephoned Zakayev, then Chechnyas minister of culture, to ask for help but was rudely rebuffed. He was one of the main ideologues of the Chechen cause, he said. I am outraged at the thought that such a man might find shelter in a country like Britain.

The British families had access to a court system that brought them compensation; most have no means of redress. Chaguchiev has set up an association of victims families.

Meanwhile, the Chechen conflict continues. Only last week a woman suicide bomber blew herself up beside a bus, killing 18 people. Although the Russian government has just offered an amnesty aimed at persuading the rebels to lay down their arms, it seems the war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives is far from over.

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