Aid Worker’s Release Leaves Unanswered Questions

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 5 Issue: 15

A volunteer for the international medical charity Medecins sans Frontieres (“Doctors Without Borders”) was freed last weekend some 607 days after his kidnapping in Dagestan. Arjan Erkel is now safely back in his native Holland, apparently in reasonably good health but about forty pounds lighter than when he was captured.

Erkel was released only after Medecins sans Frontieres intensified public pressure on the Russian authorities, accusing the FSB secret police of having been directly involved in his kidnapping and making it clear that the authorities would be held responsible for his safety. The international charity was informed of Erkel’s release not directly by the authorities but by a shadowy group called the “Veterans of Foreign Intelligence,” apparently consisting of “retired” officers from Russia’s national security agencies.

The version being distributed by state controlled Russian media such as the Novosti news agency was that Erkel had been freed by a “special operation” conducted jointly by local police and the FSB. But there is substantial reason to doubt that any such operation actually took place. A spokesman for the Dagestani interior ministry told the Moscow Times that the details of the “special operation” would be announced by federal authorities in Moscow, but as of Monday morning, April 12, no such announcement had been made.

The independent military affairs analyst Pavel Felgenhauer told the Moscow Times that Erkel’s release could have been brought about by an agreement between the authorities and the kidnappers. “Special operations are usually fictions,” he said. “Obviously, the fact that he was released suggests that a certain agreement was reached.”

Mark Walsh, head of the press service for Medecins sans Frontieres, declined to comment on whether his colleagues’ release had been the result of a “special operation” by Russia’s security agencies. Nevertheless, Erkel publicly thanked Valentin Velichko of the Veterans of Foreign Intelligence; he attended the newly freed captive’s April 11 press conference in Moscow.

The April 12 Moscow Times article by Oksana Yablokova noted that Velichko “appeared to confirm that there was no storming operation. Velichko said he personally arrived at the place where the kidnappers brought Erkel in the early hours of Sunday morning. He said the place was an hour’s drive from Makhachkala, but did not elaborate further.”