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Humanitarian Worker Kidnapped in Southern Russia - 2002-08-13

A Dutch citizen working for the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders was kidnapped Monday in Dagestan, a region in Southern Russia.

The aid worker was abducted late Monday from the Dagestani capital, Makhachkala. He was identified by Doctors Without Borders as a Dutch citizen, Arjan Erkel.

Mr. Erkel was in his car with his driver when he was kidnapped on the outskirts of Makhachkala. The Dutch embassy in Moscow says the driver was forced to lie on the floor of the car while Mr. Erkel was taken.

A prosecutor in Makhachkala, Magomed Abdulkhalikov, says police are actively looking for Mr. Erkel.

Mr. Abdulkhalikov said the police are investigating several motives for the kidnapping, including ransom or political reasons.

Kidnapping for money is common in the southern Caucasus region. Kidnappers often target foreigners like Mr. Erkel because they are believed to bring higher ransoms.

In January of 2001, another aid worker, Kenny Gluck, who also worked for Doctors Without Borders, was kidnapped while traveling in the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya. Mr. Gluck was released a few weeks later, unharmed. A spokesperson from Doctors Without Borders in Moscow, Kate de Rivero, says no ransom was paid.

Ms. de Rivero said no decision has been made on whether the organization will suspend its activities in the region. But she said there is no doubt about the seriousness of the incident. "It's a risk you know exists when you go and work somewhere. It is a worry," she said. "But I guess you don't expect it to happen until it happens. But it is a risk we're aware of."

Dagestan, the region where the Dutch aid worker was abducted on Monday, borders Chechnya where separatists are fighting Russian troops for independence. Some of the violence has spilled over into neighboring areas.

In July of this year, the United Nations suspended humanitarian aid operations in Chechnya after a Russian aid official was kidnapped.

After the first war in Chechnya, which lasted from 1994 until 1996, kidnappings for ransom became common in the region.

Moscow reinvaded Chechnya again in 1999. One of the reasons it gave for the invasion was that the region had become completely lawless.

As the second war in Chechnya goes into its third year, Russian officials say they have the situation under control. But Russian soldiers, separatists, and Chechen civilians die almost daily, as the fighting continues.