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Russian Oil Exec Freed, Reportedly Without Ransom

Mystery: Victim is mum about his release. He was dropped off at his home after 13 days of captivity.

September 26, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A highly publicized kidnapping of a prominent Russian businessman ended quietly and mysteriously Wednesday, with the executive returning to his house in broad daylight and a prosecutor saying that no ransom had been paid.

Sergei Kukura, chief financial officer of Lukoil, made no public statement upon his release by unknown gunmen after 13 days of captivity. Russia's interior minister also was silent about the case.

Police said Kukura was dropped off by his abductors outside his gated home in a Moscow suburb. Authorities said they had made no arrests but were investigating.

Newspapers here printed various conspiracy theories, suggesting that Kukura was not abducted for money but for information on the labyrinthine financial structure of Lukoil. Such data could be useful to investors, competitors or even government officials.

"Sergei Petrovich [Kukura] is safely home. He feels OK now. That is all we can say for now," said Mikhail Mikhailov, spokesman for the powerful energy company. "As for all the absurd stories in the press, I don't even want to comment on them," he added. "They must be the result of an absolute lack of tact, taste, conscience and common sense."

Nevertheless, newspaper accounts of the kidnapping tended to express doubts about whether it was motivated only by a quest for ransom, as Lukoil executives and police have portrayed it.

One skeptic is columnist Yulia Latynina, who wrote Wednesday in the Moscow Times: "Small-time criminals don't kidnap big businessmen in Russia. Oligarchs are only nabbed when old personal feuds are involved."

Other articles suggested that Kukura was targeted because of factional rivalries within Lukoil; as a means to drive down the price of the company's stock; or to tap his knowledge of where Lukoil might have hidden assets.

"The wider public will never learn what really happened," Latynina said.

The 48-year-old Kukura was en route to work Sept. 12 when his Mercedes was stopped by at least five masked men armed with automatic rifles who took him away, according to his driver and bodyguard. The two aides said they were injected with drugs and left unconscious by the kidnappers, who had posed as police and were driving a car bearing the type of license plate used by Russia's Interior Ministry.

Lukoil offered a reward of nearly $1 million for information leading to Kukura's release. There were reports that the company had made contact with the kidnappers and that they were seeking a $6-million ransom.

Dmitri Dolgov, head of the Lukoil press service, said he could not confirm whether any money had changed hands.

However, Moscow regional prosecutor Alexander Mitusov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying that "no ransom was paid."

Lukoil accounts for more than 20% of Russia's oil exports. The state owns a 7.5% stake in the company, which in August became the first Russian firm to list its shares on the London Stock Exchange.

*

Sergei L. Loiko of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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