Expatica news

Aid worker surprised by release

13 April 2004

AMSTERDAM — Blindfolded and awaiting his fate, Dutch aid worker Arjan Erkel did not expect to be freed from his kidnappers on Sunday.

Erkel said on Radio 1 Journal news he expected his release at the end of April or the start of May, but remained tight-lipped about his kidnapping and 20 months in captivity. Instead, he said “the sun is shining in my life again”.

Foreign Affairs Minister Ben Bot said Erkel’s release was the result of negotiations and that he knows who was responsible for the kidnapping. The Dutch government was involved in securing his release. Further details will be available in coming days, Bot said.

But it appears that Dutch and Russian skating contacts surprisingly played a role in Erkel’s release. The Erkel family reportedly came in contact with a club of former Russian secret service agents via former Dutch national skating coach Henk Gemser and skater Vadim Sajoetin.
The former agents probably played a vital role in tracking Erkel down and Gemser was one of the first people to receive word from Moscow about the release of Erkel, Dutch public news service NOS reported.

Erkel, 34, was head of the relief mission for organisation Artsen zonder Grenzen, or Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), in Dagestan — a constituent republic of the Russian Federation — when he was kidnapped in the capital Makhachkala in August 2002.

The Russian authorities blamed gangsters, but MSF later accused Dagestani and Russian officials of complicity in his abduction.

It has also been alleged that the abduction was politically-motivated and that Erkel might have been taken on the orders of security officials who wrongly suspected him of spying for the Americans. The Russian Navy was holding a high-profile exercise in the area at the time.

Dagestan also borders Chechnya, where a large number of kidnappings have been reported. Russian troops and separatist fighters are locked in a bloody conflict in Chechnya and Erkel’s main task was to care for refugees.

After spending 20 months in captivity, Erkel was freed during a joint operation between Russian secret service FSB and the local police officers in the early hours of 11 April, the Dagestan Interior Ministry said.

And a spokesman for MSF said on Tuesday that no ransom money was paid. This was backed up by the chairman of a Russian intelligence veterans group, Valentin Velichko, who also said Erkel was kidnapped by “a mixed group of bandits”.
Velichko said Erkel had been held at five to six locations throughout his time in captivity. He was treated “tolerably” by his kidnappers.

And despite the fact he lost 18kg, MSF has said Erkel is in “reasonable good health”. He was examined by a doctor while flying home to the Netherlands on Sunday night and two medical examinations in Russia also gave him a good bill of health.

After arriving at the Rotterdam airport on Sunday night, Erkel kissed the ground and hugged his mother and other family members. He had earlier been reunited with his father in Moscow upon arrival on a flight from Dagestan.

He told the awaiting press in Rotterdam that he had heard that the media and the Dutch public had given a lot of support to his parents, brothers and sisters, who were deeply appreciative.

“I thank the Lord that he has brought me back to life again,” he said.

Erkel had heard from his kidnappers that he would soon be released, but he thought it would not occur until the end of April or the start of May. He also thought he would be handed over to another group that would escort him to the end. “The release came as a surprise,” he said.

The Dutchman said he was blindfolded at the time of his release and could not provide exact details. He said he was delighted to return home to the Netherlands in Spring, news agency ANP reported.

“During my captivity, I always wanted to return in Spring. Just look outside where the sun is shining. I think it will be nice to go and sit on a terrace with a beer again. These sorts of things take on great importance in captivity,” Erkel said.

[Copyright Expatica News 2004]

Subject: Dutch news