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Russia: Dutch Aid Worker Freed After 20 Months in Captivity  in Dagestan - 2004-04-11

A Dutch humanitarian worker, kidnapped in the Russian province of Dagestan nearly two years ago, is on his way to Moscow, after being freed during a police operation.

A spokesman for Russia's Interior Ministry says Arkan Erkel was freed early Sunday in a raid conducted jointly by police and the Dagestan branch of the Russian Federal Security Agency.

Mr. Erkel was head of North Caucasus operations for Medecins Sans Frontieres - Doctors Without Borders. He was kidnapped in August 2002, in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, which borders on the troubled province of Chechnya. He was dragged from his minibus by three armed men, who forced him into their car, and drove to an unknown destination.

For months, his whereabouts were unknown. His colleagues said they received reports that he was alive and being held somewhere in Dagestan. All attempts to contact the kidnappers and negotiate for his release were ended in December. At that time, according to Mark Walsh, an MSF spokesman in Moscow, Mr. Erkel's health was said to be deteriorating, and there were hints that he faced execution.

Mr. Walsh says no ransom was paid for Mr. Erkel's release.

During the long ordeal, Medecins Sans Frontieres repeatedly accused Russian officials of being involved in the kidnapping. The allegations were denied, but a Dagestani police official in charge of the case was arrested in December on suspicion of being involved in the abduction.

Mr. Erkel was the second MSF employee to be kidnapped in southern Russia. In January 2001, an American, Kenneth Gluck, was abducted and held for 25 days in Chechnya.

Kidnappings for ransom or exchange of inmates in Russian prisons increased dramatically in southern Russia in the mid-1990s.