Kidnapped boy returns to Israel

TEL AVIV — Twelve-year-old Adi Sharon returned safely to Israel on Sunday evening, nearly a year after being kidnapped while visiting his father in Moscow and held for millions of dollars in ransom.

Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport along with his father, Yossi, and Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, Sharon appeared frail and gaunt from his ordeal.

He was immediately brought to the youth emergency room of Tel Hashomer's Sheba Hospital for treatment for malnutrition and dehydration.

Besieged by reporters en route from the plane to the waiting ambulance, the pale and dazed Adi said he was "happy" and "very good," but also "very tired."

The Kremlin press service said Prime Minister Ehud Barak called Russian President Vladimir Putin and expressed his gratitude to all those involved in securing the boy's freedom.

Officials at Sheba said they spoke to doctors who treated him in Russia and that he would require extensive physical and psychological treatment. They declined comment on whether he would need surgery.

In a dramatic televised raid, a Russian SWAT team rescued Adi June 1 from a filthy basement in the southern Russian city of Penza. The boy had been kept under harsh conditions, not seeing daylight and subsisting on bread and water.

The abductors, a group that included both Russians and Chechens, had originally demanded a ransom of $5 million, then cut the sum to $1 million. The father paid a first installment of $50,000 before contacts with the gang ceased, in part because of a Russian military advance in Chechnya.

After the payments stopped, the gangsters cut off two of the boy's fingers and mailed them to his father. At that point, the Israeli Embassy put Sharon in contact with a special Russian police team and with Vyacheslav Izmailov, a retired Russian major who has arranged the release of dozens of hostages held in Chechnya, including several Israeli citizens.

Subsequent phone negotiations led the police to several different places in Chechnya and in the neighboring republic of Ingushetiya.

Their efforts paid off last week when Adi was traced to Penza, where police detained five members of the gangs and freed the youth.

Adi was abducted last August in Moscow, where his father, Yossi Sharon, an Israeli businessman, had brought him for the summer.

The family emigrated to Israel from the former Soviet republic of Georgia 20 years ago. Adi lost his mother when he was 4, and he frequently accompanied his father on business trips.

Asked why it took so long to rescue the boy, Rushailo said, "It took time to find information about this crime. There were many criminals involved and it took time to find and arrest all of them."

Sharon's uncle, Gabi Badichi, called upon the government to take responsibility for the boy's rehabilitation. The family gave all their money to the kidnappers and now cannot afford his treatment, he said.

Badichi praised Barak and Ephraim Sneh, an Israeli deputy minister, for their role in bringing the boy home. But he criticized other government officials who rushed to take credit for his return, yet allowed him to remain in captivity for so long.

"They're giving themselves prizes after not helping him for months," Badichi said, singling out David Levy and Marina Solodkin, Israeli ministers whom he called "publicity seekers who strung us along."

Solodkin said she had been active for months working to free Sharon and 12 other kidnapped Israelis, claiming she met with the head of the Russian anti-terrorism unit, Ambassador Michael Bogdanov and the Knesset's foreign affairs committee to no avail.

In November, the immigration committee of the Knesset called upon Barak to establish a team to bring about the release of the kidnapped Israelis, she said, but it was not set up.

"We could have gotten him out earlier if our government were more organized," Solodkin said.

Israeli Embassy officials in Moscow that they believe Sharon was the last Israeli held in southern Russia, but Solodkin said five more kidnapped Israelis remain. She said five others were recently released and three more are presumed dead.

Mira Babaev, whose husband Anatoly was kidnapped in Dagestan nearly a year ago, said she has not heard from him since. Babaev said she has been in contact with both nations' officials and that her father-in-law even went to the Russian mountains to search for him.

Leora Lichtman, 19, of Netanya, was kidnapped last year when visiting her grandmother in Dagestan and held captive in a secluded room for six months. Lichtman said she called Sharon's grandmother after she was freed to tell her not to give up hope.