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Reward Offer Tendered for Kidnap Victim

Russia: Giant oil firm says it would pay almost $1 million to obtain the release of a top executive.

September 14, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — The head of Russia's biggest oil company offered a nearly $1-million reward Friday for information leading to the release of the company's chief financial officer, who was abducted in an elaborate operation that sent shudders through the business community in this untamed capital.

The kidnapping of Lukoil executive Sergei Kukura took place in daylight and involved at least five men posing as traffic police conducting document checks at a railroad crossing south of the city.

"Unfortunately in Russia today, no matter how high a post this or any other person occupies, they can't feel safe," Lukoil President Vagit Alekperov said in announcing the reward.

Investigators reportedly were looking into the possibility that Lukoil's rivals might be involved.

Since Russia began its chaotic transition to capitalism after more than seven decades of Communist rule, dozens of top officials and magnates have been gunned down or kidnapped for ransom, often by rivals aiming to move in on their territory. But Moscow's "bandit capitalism" was thought to have subsided in recent months with the rise of more stable enterprises with ties to the global economy.

Kukura, 48, was abducted about 7:30 a.m. Thursday as he was being driven from his country house to the company's headquarters in central Moscow. Uniformed men in two cars bearing the signature blue license plates of police and Interior Ministry vehicles stopped his Mercedes sedan on the pretext of checking the chauffeur's license.

The driver and bodyguard were hooded, handcuffed, injected with a drug and left unconscious in the Mercedes far enough off the main road to go undetected for seven hours. Police were alerted after the pair regained consciousness.

"It is extremely hard to protect yourself against this kind of kidnapping, where it's impossible to tell whether you're dealing with real policemen or bandits dressed like cops," said Vladimir V. Lutsenko, a former intelligence officer who runs a security company.

"Perpetrators of these crimes as a rule get away with everything because law enforcement bodies are incapable of resolving the crimes," he said.

Alekperov said Lukoil would spare no expense in aiding the investigation and seeing that the kidnappers are brought to justice. He said the company's staff had been suffering "great moral trauma" since the abduction.

"I and all Lukoil employees are extremely outraged by the cynical abduction," he said.

Russian business leaders condemned the kidnapping and lamented its potential to set back efforts to reform commerce and root out corruption.

"The incident is all the more repulsive as it took place now that Russian business is becoming increasingly transparent and civilized," the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs said in a statement. The business group described the kidnapping as "an attempt to undermine the consolidated efforts of business circles to advance the economy."

Police throughout western Russia were on alert, but initial accounts of the search suggested that authorities had found no trace of the gunmen or their captive.

Lukoil spokesman Dmitri Dolgov said the company had no comment on whether ransom demands had been made or other contact established with the kidnappers. The firm did not want to disclose information that might compromise efforts to free Kukura, he said.

A Moscow police official, however, told the Itar-Tass news agency that nothing had been heard from the abductors. Deputy City Interior Minister Gennady Deineko said police were proceeding on the assumption that Kukura was targeted for his "professional activities" rather than his wealth.

Lukoil sources also told the news agency that they suspected industry rivals were responsible.

"Unfortunately, Kukura's bodyguard and driver failed to disclose any concrete information that could shed light on the motives for the crime," one investigative source told Itar-Tass.

Lukoil, with a market capitalization of $14 billion, accounts for 24% of Russia's oil production, the company says on its Web site.

*

Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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