Tycoon kidnaps Georgia's dire routine

Kidnaps of big businessmen and their relatives are becoming the daily routine in Georgia.

The body of a Russian petroleum boss's father was found Thursday.

Sadi Sharifov, 79, was kidnapped, December 2. Vaghit Sharifov, his elder son, is vice-president of the Moscow-based LUKOIL company.

The old man, a Georgian national of Azeri extraction, died a week ago or even earlier - a few days after the kidnap, say forensic experts, as RIA Novosti learned from Zumrud Kurbanov, Georgian parliamentarian in contact with the Azeri diaspora.

Sharifov's body was discovered on the roadside fifty kilometres off Tbilisi. The dead man must have fallen down the slope after the bandits threw him out of a car. Experts are not sure whether the victim was alive or dead when the kidnappers disposed of him, says the MP.

The experts are uncertain of the cause and time of Sharifov's death, Paata Gomelauri, Georgia's Interior Ministry chief of PR, said to RIA Novosti. The body bears no traces of violence. The old man must have died a natural death due to suspense - most probably, of heart attack.

Detectives are working hard, and pledge to finish the investigation quite soon, Georgia's presidential press service says in an official statement circulated yesterday.

As soon as the tragedy was reported to President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia, he expressed condolence with the Sharifov family and promised that the culprits will be tracked down and duly punished, Kakha Imnadze, presidential press spokesman, said in a television livecast.

Information about persons involved in the kidnap has reached the police, he added.

Five hoodlums broke into the Sharifovs' house in the Dmanisi district, Georgia's east, in the night of December 2. The doomed old man and his younger son with wife were at home at the time. The bandits took USD 400 in cash and a stock of jewellery, badly battered the younger Sharifov - he has several ribs broken, and were intimidating his wife.

As far as the local police know, Sadi Sharifov followed the bandits of his own free will to save his near and dear from further violence. He was taken away in his own Niva car, which was soon found abandoned close to Lake Kumisi, halfway between Tbilisi and Rustavi. The family did not get any ransom demands after the kidnap.

Georgia's top prosecutor is supervising the detection as it is following several tracks - one leading to Vaghit Sharifov's business.

Sadi Sharifov was kidnapped by ransom-hunters in 1993. The four culprits, all local residents, were soon arrested and eventually convicted. All have been released by now.

Local detectives do not think the second, fatal kidnap was premeditated. The bandits, more probably, took the old man away out of disappointment with the small amount of cash and jewels the burglary brought them.

Sadi Sharifov was sharing his unassuming one-storey house with his married younger son. He had been working for the local state farm throughout his life, and took up private farming after he retired.

Preceding the tragedy were many instances of business tycoons and their relatives kidnapped.

Yelena Tkebuchava, elderly mother of Jumber Tkebuchava, vice-president of another Russian petroleum mammoth, the Slavneft, was kidnapped from her home in Tkvarcheli in the small hours, November 16. The crime was reported to the Abkhaz police as late as November 23. A mixed Georgian-Abkhaz gang was assumed to be involved. The kidnappers eventually contacted the old lady's relatives to say they would appoint a ransom within a few days. Yelena Tkebuchava remains in their hands to this day.

Peter Shaw, manager of the European Union-financed TACIS technical assistance programme, was kidnapped in Tbilisi's heart, last June, to be rescued in November. He says he has been through an appalling plight. He spent four months in a dugout, chained by the neck.

The British national had been working in Georgia for six years. He is Director General of the AgroBusinessBank, a commercial bank which is crediting Georgian agriculture.

As President Shevardnadze acknowledged after the Peter Shaw drama, kidnaps were "becoming a deplorable vogue" in his country. Georgia is a tiny place in a bad situation. Its law-enforcement agencies are unable to keep crime in check, he complained.

Gunter Beichel of the European Union office in Georgia was killed a year ago, December 2001. No verdict has been pronounced on the murderers as yet.

A cold spell set in between Tbilisi and Madrid after several Spanish businessmen were kidnapped in Georgia.