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U.S. Abductee Rescued in Chechnya

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Russian security forces rescued an American missionary Tuesday more than seven months after he was kidnapped near Russia’s lawless and separatist republic of Chechnya.

Herbert Gregg, 51, a native of Mesa, Ariz., appeared gaunt but cheerful as he deplaned here in the late evening after leaving the region.

“I feel wonderful,” he said, managing a smile behind a full beard he grew in captivity.

His right hand was wrapped in a bandage. His kidnappers had cut off part of his index finger in an effort to extort ransom.

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Asked what message he would like to send his captors, Gregg said only, “That God really loves them.”

Gregg was one of the last Westerners--and the only American--believed held captive in Chechnya, which fought a 21-month war to secede from Russia earlier this decade. About 100 other people, mostly Russians, are still missing and presumably being held for ransom.

Maj. Gen. Vladimir Kozlov--head of the Interior Ministry’s organized crime unit, which conducted the rescue operation--said no ransom was paid for Gregg’s release. Kozlov refused to provide further details of the rescue.

Gregg was abducted Nov. 11 after playing basketball at an orphanage in Makhachkala, capital of the republic of Dagestan. The republic borders Chechnya in Russia’s southern Caucasus region. Gregg and his wife, Linda, had lived and worked in Dagestan for four years.

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Gregg was a missionary with the Evangelical Alliance Mission, known as TEAM--a Christian organization based in Wheaton, Ill., that places charity workers and religious instructors around the world.

John Jackson, spokesman for TEAM, said that, in addition to his church work, Gregg taught English at a university in Makhachkala. Gregg previously had worked as a missionary in Brazil and Portugal.

U.S. Ambassador James Collins, who met Gregg at the airport along with Interior Minister Vladimir B. Rushailo, said President Clinton had discussed the kidnapping with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin during a meeting in Germany this month.

“The president, the vice president and all the American people are extremely grateful to have Mr. Gregg back safe and sound,” Collins said.

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The Chechen war ended in a political stalemate, and Russia has been unable to reestablish control over the region. No country has recognized Chechnya as an independent state.

Its war of secession left the republic devastated, and gangs of armed fighters have resorted to kidnappings, often fanning out into neighboring regions.

Last week, kidnappers freed an emaciated 4-year-old Russian girl after holding her for eight months because her mother could come up with only $1,000 of the $7,000 they demanded. The girl weighed barely more than 20 pounds and had been severely beaten.

Some kidnappings have ended even more tragically. Three British engineers and a New Zealand colleague were beheaded in December, two months after they were abducted in the Chechen capital, Grozny. Their heads were deposited in a sack by the side of the road.

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In March 1995, prominent American aid worker Frederick C. Cuny disappeared in Chechnya while working for the Soros Foundation. He is believed to have been killed shortly thereafter, but his body has not been recovered.


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