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Jewish soldier spends retirement saving lives

MOSCOW, Oct. 31 (JTA) — With limited official support and a small group of assistants, a retired Jewish major in the Russian army is attempting to fight the scourge of kidnappings that has descended upon the troubled region of Chechnya.

“Just several days ago, I received a videocassette in which they chopped off his finger. They are demanding a $200,000 ransom,” said Maj. Vyacheslav Izmailov regarding the fate of Oleg Yemelyantsev, 40, an Israeli citizen born in Russia who is currently being held hostage in the Russian semiautonomous region of Chechnya in the North Caucasus mountains.

A year and a half ago, shortly after Yemelyantsev came from Israel to sell his apartment in this southern Russian region, he was kidnapped and taken hostage.

Yemelyantsev is just one of more than 1,000 people, including several dozen Jews, being held hostage — “and these are only the officially registered cases. The real figures are far greater,” Izmailov said.

Jews are singled out as victims of these kidnappings because they are few in number and because of the widespread belief that the international Jewish community and the State of Israel would never forsake fellow Jews.

Izmailov first became involved in the region during the 1995-96 war between Chechnya and Russia, when he worked to bring soldiers and POWs back to Russia. Since then, the region has become, in Izmailov’s words, “an empire of the slave trade, a black hole of the whole region, sucking into itself hostages and slaves of all nationalities, ages and occupations: ethnic Chechens and Russians, children and grownups, soldiers and Orthodox priests.”

Izmailov, 45, who was raised in the Muslim region of Dagestan, has become one of the key figures in the “unknown war” against the kindnappings, which has become a flourishing business in the region. Izmailov has managed to free almost 100 hostages.

Izmailov, who has sent his family to Israel for their safety, lives alone in his apartment in a Moscow suburb and shuttles between Moscow and the North Caucasus.

With Russian officials — including the Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB — not particularly active in this fight, two independent groups led by retired army officers have taken on the task: one led by Izmailov, the other by nationalist Gen. Alexander Lebed.

The two groups, which occasionally cooperate, use different methods in their attempts to retrieve hostages.

Lebed, who is now the governor of the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, uses the financial support of a number of wealthy businessmen, including Boris Berezovsky, a media tycoon with Jewish roots, to pay ransoms.

By contrast, Izmailov’s group tries to pay for its hostages in “human currency,” that is, using prisoner swaps.

Using his connections in the Ministry of Interior, he picks out an ethnic Chechen mobster being held by Russia and tries to trade him for a hostage being held in Chechnya.

It’s delicate work that includes building a chain of connections between Interior Ministry officials, the relatives of the detained mobsters and the leaders of the gangs — who often number among them officials of the self- proclaimed Chechen Republic.

Until recently, this scheme worked reasonably well, but earlier this year Izmailov’s contacts in the Interior Ministry and in police headquarters became less effective, most likely because of personnel changes.

Since then, Izmailov’s group has increasingly applied another, more dangerous, approach: helping the hostages escape.

Such plans sound fantastic, but sometimes they work.

Mikhail Brenner, a Jew from the city of Nalchik, and four of his colleagues was kidnapped one year ago from a town near the border with Chechnya where they were working at a construction site.

One of the prisoners, an ethnic Russian, was released after his relatives collected money and ransomed him.

The captors demanded $150,000 for each of the remaining hostages. When they did not receive the money at the end of May, they murdered one of the hostages, Victor Zinchenko, an ethnic Ukrainian.

Shortly afterward, relatives of the remaining prisoners, among them Brenner’s wife, who has three children, received a videotape with footage of the beheading of Zinchenko by a masked executioner with an ax.

Earlier this month, his group, in cooperation with some of Lebed’s henchmen, organized the escape of several hostages, including Brenner.

Of course, the efforts of Izmailov and Lebed are not always successful. Lev Melikhov, 52, a Jew who was kidnapped March 31 from his house in the city of Nalchik, was apparently recently murdered by his captors.

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Among the dozens of Jews who have been kidnapped in the past few years in and around Chechnya are:

• Victor Shvarts, a Jewish dentist from the city of Makhachkala, who has just been released after being held hostage since last November. But his father, who was kidnapped earlier last year, was later killed by the kidnappers.

• Abram Ilyaguyev, 59, who was kidnapped in February on a street in Makhachkala. He has just been released.

• Roman Ashurov, 60, kidnapped in the city of Nalchik two years ago. His daughter lives in Israel. His fate is unknown.

• Volodya Fayil, 14, kidnapped this May in the street in Makhachkala. He is still being held hostage in Chechnya. The kidnappers demand a ransom of $100,000. Fayil’s father lives in Israel; his mother remains in Makhachkala.

• Laura Likhtman, 18, an Israeli citizen, who was kidnapped in Nalchik this July. Her whereabouts are unknown.

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