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3 Red Cross Workers Released

August 13, 2000

GENEVA (AP) _ Two Red Cross workers were reunited with their families in Geneva, after they and their driver were freed Sunday from nine days’ captivity in the remote mountains of northern Georgia.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said no ransom had been paid for the release, while the identity of the kidnappers remained unclear.

The aid workers _ a French woman, an Italian woman and a Georgian man _ were handed over to Georgian authorities in the Pankisi Gorge, near the border with Chechnya, in the early hours of the morning, and taken to the capital Tbilisi.

Sophia Procofieff, 38, of France, and Natascia Zullino, 36, of Italy and on her first Red Cross mission, were flown to Geneva, where they rushed across the tarmac to meet a group of 10 relatives.

The women, who appeared in good health, smiled and waved to reporters but did not comment on their ordeal. Their driver, Yuri Darchiev, was reunited with his family in Georgia.

``She’s very well,″ said Zullino’s brother, Daniele. ``We want to spend time as a family.″

Police would not say who the captors were or reveal the conditions for the release. But Italy’s ambassador to Georgia, Michelangelo Pipan, said in an interview with private Italian TV network Canale 5 that the captors ``were not Chechen rebels, but in all probability common criminals.″

Procofieff had been ending a tour of duty in the valley _ which hosts several thousand refugees from Chechnya _ and introducing her successor, Zullino, to the area. The two women and Darchiev had last been heard from Aug. 3, when they left for the Pankisi Gorge. Their abandoned car was found in the area two days later.

``What we can say is that the kidnapping by several armed men happened on Friday, Aug. 4, and that our three colleagues were held in several successive places,″ Angelo Gnaedinger, the ICRC general delegate for Europe, told reporters.

``It seems that they were not subjected to violence,″ added Gnaedinger, who returned from the Georgia with Procofieff and Zullino. The ICRC plans to debrief all three workers Monday.

Gnaedinger said the three hostages were never taken out of Georgia, after initial fears they had had been taken to Chechnya, where Russian troops have been battling rebel forces since September.

Georgian authorities had negotiated with the abductors for several days. They stressed that ``no ransom was paid,″ Gnaedinger said.

One Georgian negotiator, Mamuka Arershidze, told Russia’s NTV television that the captors demanded that they not be arrested or tried for the abductions.

International aid groups pulled out of Chechnya and surrounding regions after a wave of kidnappings and killings of Russians and foreigners that followed the first, 1994-96 Chechnya war.

Six Red Cross workers were killed in 1996 as they slept in Chechnya’s capital Grozny and at least three foreign aid workers were kidnapped. Kidnapping for ransom became a huge industry in Chechnya after Russian troops pulled out at the end of the last war.

Aid groups began returning cautiously to the area after Russian forces entered Chechnya again last September, but only a few aid workers are inside the republic itself, largely because of security concerns.

The Red Cross suspended its work in the Pankisi Gorge after the latest kidnapping. It will remain suspended while security measures are reviewed, Gnaedinger said.

``We’re in a hurry″ to start again, he said. ``We don’t want the refugees to pay for this.″

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