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U.S. Businessman Held for Ransom Is Freed in Moscow : Russia: Abductors of Alaska trader in antlers are arrested after FBI joins probe. He was held for 10 days.

June 03, 1993|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — An American businessman held hostage for 10 days by 16 armed kidnapers from southern Russia was freed two blocks from the Kremlin and his abductors were arrested by police after an investigation aided by the FBI, authorities said Wednesday.

The kidnapers had demanded a $400,000 ransom for Thomas Ling Ming Cha, 58, head of Alaska Antler Products Inc. in Anchorage, Cha's assistant, Susan Mitchell, said in a telephone interview from Alaska.

Mitchell said Cha and his Russian translator, who was held with him, were freed "several days ago."

For the last three years, Cha had been buying wild reindeer and caribou antlers in Russia and exporting them to Hong Kong and South Korea, Mitchell said from Anchorage. The dried antlers, ground up and made into tea, are thought by some to have aphrodisiac powers.

Mitchell said the kidnapers first demanded money they said Cha owed them, then upped the ante to $400,000. Russian police said the kidnapers had taken $1,000, documents and a gold ring from the victims. Both Russian and U.S. authorities declined to say how they had located and freed Cha.

The kidnaping is the high-water mark in a rising tide of crime against--and by--the 1.5 million foreigners who have poured into Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union. As Russia's economy deteriorates and central authority weakens, crime against foreigners has more than doubled in the last four years, officials of the Russian Interior Ministry said in a meeting with reporters Tuesday.

Kidnapings are also on the rise in Russia, although only one other victim has been a foreigner. Typically, the abductors are disgruntled trading partners or creditors who figure it is quicker to hold a victim hostage until he pays up than drag him to court.

Mitchell said she did not know how or where Cha was abducted, but he called her from Moscow to ask for the ransom money.

"He just called me and told me I need to come to Moscow quickly, that there were some difficulties and he needed some money to settle the difficulties," Mitchell said. "His voice was really bad, and I could tell there was something very wrong."

Mitchell said she had read a Los Angeles Times story in November about the rise in Russian kidnapings. She suspected foul play, and called the FBI. The FBI then contacted the State Department and Russian law enforcement agencies, said Wiley Thompson, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI in Alaska.

Cha was released at Moscow's Central Telegraph Building about two blocks from the Kremlin, but it was unclear whether he had been held captive there. Mitchell said Cha knew he was in Moscow but did not know where he was being held.

She said Cha has been unable to leave the country since he was freed.

"He's still stuck in Moscow," she said. "They took his passport, his travel documents, his tickets, his money, everything."

Russian news agency reports identified Cha as president of an antler trading company in Khabarovsk, in the Russian Far East. But Mitchell said that although the company had done business in Khabarovsk, it was not based there and that it bought antlers from traders in Moscow.

Police said the kidnapers were a gang from Daghestan, an isolated, mountainous republic in the Caucasus inhabited by people of 33 different nationalities. Mitchell said she had not heard of Cha doing business with people from Daghestan.

In Russian kidnapings, the disgruntled party typically hires a thug who will snatch the victim in exchange for 5% to 10% of the ransom.

Despite the rise in crime, Russia remains much safer than most European countries. Valery P. Gorchakov, a police major general, said Tuesday that the overall crime rate for Russia is 1,900 crimes per 100,000 people, whereas European crime rates range from 3,000 to 7,000 per 100,000. Despite Moscow's complex urban problems, its crime rate is only 900 per 100,000, Gorchakov said.

Attacks on foreigners are, however, relatively new, and they have received more attention in the Western press. Under Soviet rule, foreigners were a rarity, and crime against them was all but unthinkable, said Vassily P. Ignatov, director of the Russian branch of Interpol.

"In the old days . . . a foreigner would be regarded by Soviet authorities not only as a bearer of alien ideology but also as a--well, not exactly a spy but a person potentially capable of committing some hostile act," Ignatov said. "Now, there are so many foreigners in Russia."

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