Two Polish academics, held by Chechen kidnappers since last August, have been freed after 208 days in captivity.
Zofia Fiszer-Malanowska, 66, and Ewa Marchwinska-Wyrwal, 56, environmental biologists employed by the Polish Academy of Sciences, disappeared in Dagestan. They were taken to neighbouring Chechnya and held in cellars and dug-outs. Their abductors demanded a ransom of $1 million each, which the Polish government refused to pay.
Russian agency reports implied that the women were released as the result of Russian action against the Chechen partisans. But the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza attributed a big role in the release to the Chechen partisans of "president" Aslan Maskhadov.
Throughout the first Chechen conflict, Polish public opinion was pro-Chechen, and a Chechen information centre operated from the Polish city of Krakow. For the partisan leadership, the seizure of the female academics tarnished the Chechen image and, back in November, it began negotiating the women's release.
According to Gazeta Wyborcza, Mr Maskhadov's original plan was for the women to be returned to Poland via Georgia. This proved impracticable, so it was decided to try to open direct negotiations with the Russians. In spite of the ongoing hostilities, a partisan group made the necessary contact at the risk of their own lives - and Russian officials gave permission for the negotiations.
The two professors say that, on the whole, their Chechen captors treated them well - and at one point had apologised and called their abduction a "mistake".
A Russian woman seized with them, however, was beaten and menaced.