Police find car of three Red Cross employees missing in Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia - Police searching for three missing Red Cross aid workers found their abandoned car Saturday near the border with the breakaway republic of Chechnya, but not its passengers, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

The three have been missing since Thursday, when they set off in a Toyota sedan from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi, to Pankisi gorge to visit several thousand refugees who fled fighting in Chechnya between separatist rebels and Russian troops, said Pauline Ceinaix, a Red Cross representative in Tbilisi.

The search began after the group failed to respond to radio transmission for more than 24 hours, Ceinaix said. The three had not arrived at the refugee camp by Saturday night.

Police found the car ''on the territory of the Pankisi gorge'' on Saturday but no sign of the passengers, ITAR-Tass cited unnamed officials as saying. No other details were immediately available.

Police had used helicopters and ground vehicles to search the rugged terrain along Georgia's northern border with Chechnya.

According to the Red Cross Tbilisi office, the missing workers were Sophie Prokopieff of France, Natasha Zullino of Italy and their Georgian driver, Yuri Darchiyev, who regularly visited the Chechen settlement in Pankisi.

''We are contacting other organizations working in the area, and we are trying to find out what happened to our colleagues,'' Ceinaix told Associated Press Television News.

According to Russian television, police said the car could have crashed on the rough mountain route, but they also suggested the workers could have been kidnapped.

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

Six Red Cross workers were shot to death in 1996 as they slept in Chechnya's capital Grozny, and at least three foreign aid workers were kidnapped. Kidnapping for ransom became a growth 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.


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