The plan was simple. Kidnap two children, start negotiations with the family, collect the ransom.
The family's response was startling. It embarked on its own kidnapping spree, resulting in three deaths, five abductions and, 100 days later, the safe return of the two children.
This was the gripping outcome of a sensational abduction in the Russian region of Ingushetia, next door to the battered separatist region of Chechnya. In this area of the Caucasus, crime is often a matter between quarreling clans. So when members of the Belkharoyev family discovered that two of their boys had been kidnapped, it was only natural for them to rely on their own resources--and their own traditional methods--to recover them. In this case, that meant kidnapping others for the purpose of exchange.
For the past three years, Chechnya has been home to a violent and lucrative kidnapping industry. No one has been safe, and as the pool of juicy targets in the region dried up, the spree spread to neighboring areas, particularly Ingushetia.
Now Russia is involved in an assault on Chechnya, citing the need to impose law and order as one of the reasons. Chechnya gained effective independence from Moscow after driving out Russian troops in 1996 following a two-year war. In this war, the Chechens stand virtually alone against the siege and invasion, with no sympathy from Russians and little from the outside world--and the kidnapping epidemic is one reason.
About 1,000 people have been kidnapped by Chechens in the past three years, Russian officials say, and scores are still being held. Late last year, four workers for a British telecommunications company were beheaded by kidnappers.
Russian police regularly show reporters grisly videotapes of tortured hostages to whip up popular disgust. The tapes are made by Chechen abductors to emphasize the need for swift ransom payments. To the Russian public, these images have made Chechens appear capable of any crime.
Chechen extremists also stand accused of blowing up apartment buildings in Russia, killing nearly 300 people. Russia has produced no evidence of involvement by Chechens, but with the barbarous kidnappings in mind, few in Russia doubt their guilt.
The Belkharoyev kidnapping was typical in its meticulous planning, lightning execution and purely commercial objective. It was unusual in only one facet: the family's determination to pay no ransom. "That was our absolute position," said Yahat Belkharoyev, a relative of the two boys and patriarch of a large Ingush clan.
Belkharoyev told his story in the presence of an Ingush official who confirmed the account. The tale indicated that despite the Russian assault on Chechnya, the abduction business goes on. The boys were kidnapped in June, but hostage negotiations and double-dealing continued into October, long after Russia had launched its invasion. "This is a highly developed system," said Belkharoyev, a physician by training. "War is no deterrent." Going to the authorities for help was not an option. That is not the tradition, and, moreover, confidence in law enforcement is low in super-corrupt Russia.
The Belkharoyevs are one of Ingushetia's wealthiest families. Yahat is deputy speaker in the region's parliament and heads the social and health committee. His house stands on a main street in Nazran, the largest Ingush city. The compound's high walls, sturdy brick buildings and ornate metallic roof decoration bespeak prosperity. The large number of security guards betrays the fears of anyone here with money. "All prominent people in Ingushetia were targets for kidnapping," Belkharoyev said. "Adults, of course, took precautions. We didn't think children were in danger."
But someone was taking notes. An Ingush kidnapping gang in league with Chechens watched the comings and goings of Abdulhamid Belkharoyev, 14, a nephew of Yahat's, as well as Idris, a 9-year-old cousin. On the morning of June 22, the boys boarded a bus for the gym. They were supposed to be back by 11 a.m. When they failed to arrive by noon, alarms sounded throughout the family.
They had disappeared without a trace--or even a ransom demand. Unknown to the Belkharoyevs, the kidnappers had stuffed the boys into the back seat of a white sedan and whisked them into the wilds of Chechnya.
The family offered a $20,000 reward for information. They got it. The so-called Yamudayev clan, based in Gudermes, a town in east Chechnya, fingered the Jemilkhanov gang in Urus-Martan, to the west. That was only part of the story, but it gave the victims' family a lead.
They built on the tip when someone told them that the Ingush accomplices were led by Bashir Barakhoyev, a trusted family friend who had offered condolences for the abductions. The family quickly invited him over for a visit and took him captive in a hidden location.
The Ingush kidnapper sang. He confirmed that hostages were held by the Jemilkhanov gang, but sprang a surprise: The Yamudayevs, who had provided the family with their first tip, had ordered up the crime! In effect, for $20,000, one gang provided information to lure the Belkharoyevs into ransom talks with the other gang, to get more money.
The family had other ideas. They forced their captive to phone the kidnappers and invite them to the frontier for talks. The Belkharoyevs hoped to nab a few of the gang members and trade them for the boys.
The plan went awry. The kidnappers became suspicious and tried to flee. A 15-minute firefight broke out. One of the Jemilkhanov gang died on the spot; two others were wounded. The Belkharoyevs rushed the wounded to an Ingush hospital. One died on the way; the other died a few days later, despite frantic efforts. "We collected blood from our family. We needed to keep him alive for a future exchange. A corpse would not be enough to get the boys back," said Ibrahim Belkharoyev, the older brother of the kidnapped Abdulhamid. Ibrahim heads the family security operation, and had taken charge of the hostage recovery project. He was lightly wounded during the shootout.
One of the dead kidnappers was a brother of a top gang leader. "We had to keep his death a secret. We still wanted to trade him," Ibrahim Belkharoyev said. They stored both corpses in a freezer.
After much thought, the family decided they still needed live captives. They abducted a driver from the Jemilkhanov gang. The driver, in turn, let slip that one of the original kidnappers belonged to the Ingush OMON, a special riot control police squad. The family took him hostage, too.
But demands for the boys' release went nowhere. The family approached the Chechen government of President Aslan Maskhadov for help. Maskhadov sent a middleman, and the Belkharoyevs explained the problem. They told him about the refrigerated Chechens.
Unknown to the family, the Maskhadov delegate was in league with the kidnappers. Soon, the criminals demanded not only the corpses, but also money. "The only way they could have found out about it was through Maskhadov's man. This made Maskhadov our enemy, too," said Ibrahim Belkharoyev.
The solution: more kidnappings. This time, the family abducted two of Maskhadov's presidential guards. "Our terms were simple: If you don't return the children safe, we will shoot all our hostages," said Ibrahim Belkharoyev.
Four-sided negotiations eventually took place: The family and representatives of the Ingush police met with delegates from the Maskhadov government and a Muslim cleric representing the kidnappers.
Finally, on Oct. 3, a taxi pulled up to the family compound. Nine-year-old Idris was home. He said he and Abdulhamid had been kept in a basement in Gudermes for several weeks, then were transfered to Urus-Martan. They were not harmed, he said, although food was scarce and their lodgings were cold.
A week later, they got a phone call from the border. Abdulhamid, the 14-year-old, was free. His older brother picked him up at the frontier. "I was glad they didn't pay ransom," the boy, looking pale and thin but in good health, said the other day. "I didn't want to be a sheep to be bought and sold."
In return for the boys, the family released the frozen corpses, the driver, the Ingush cop and the presidential guards. They also turned over Bashir Barakhoyev, the trusted family "friend" in league with the Ingush captors, to the Chechen kidnappers. The Chechens executed him.
End of story? Ibrahim Belkharoyev thinks everyone is satisfied and there will be no reprisals. "We just want to be friends with everyone," he said.
CAPTION: A Russian boy, who was kidnapped last year and taken to Chechnya, returns to his family.