FREED: The 19-year-old son of a Latvian businessman, who was taken hostage by two Russian-speakers of Chechen origin, was liberated Dec. 7 by Latvian and British law enforcement authorities. Krists Leiskalns, spokesman for the Latvian State Police, said the kidnappers demanded the father pay ransom of 10,000 British pounds. At first they were demanding a ransom of 100,000 British pounds, but when the young man said his father couldn't pay such a large sum, the kidnappers dropped their demands to 10,000 pounds. The businessman's son first met the kidnappers in October when they were all staying in the same hotel. On Dec. 2 the three men met again at a party where the two kidnappers attacked the Latvian businessman's son. The kidnappers then rapidly changed between three locations, in undisclosed rural and urban areas, before a British special unit raided them, freeing the 19-year-old. The kidnapped youth has since returned to Latvia, Leiskalns said.
SUSPECTED: A Russian national and former Soviet elite OMON trooper was detained as a suspect in the April 1998 bombing of a Riga synagogue, said Juris Smitins, a security police chief. Smitins said the 30-year-old Russian is a resident of St. Petersburg but was detained in Latvia, where he used to live. The man was detained as part of an ongoing investigation into the bombing. The suspect is also charged in a Latvian criminal case against OMON troopers who stand accused of posing a threat to Latvian state power during the 1991 drive for independence. Several people died when Latvians barricaded themselves in the Old Town to protect their first democratically elected Parliament. The man later left Latvia with his OMON unit. Smitins said for now the detained man is the only person tied to the synagogue bombing. The April 2 synagogue bombing, just eight days ahead of Jewish Passover, smashed windows and caused other damage. Although there were three people inside the synagogue when the bomb went off, including Latvia's chief rabbi Nathan Barkan, only one was injured in the blast. Two top interior system officials were dismissed in the wake of the attack, including state police chief Aldis Lieljuksis and Interior Ministry state secretary Andris Staris.
SWITCHOVER: The Population Ministry is gearing up to take over the duties of Estonia's mission from Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The mission is reportedly planning to close its doors by the end of 2001 or the beginning of 2002. "The principal functions of the OSCE mission have been advising people and monitoring observance of human rights," said Jarno Laur, advisor to the population minister. Ombudsman offices will be opened in the larger towns, especially in the mostly Russian-populated northeast. The population ministry will be closely observing human rights in Estonia, duties the ministry tentatively plans to outsource to a third party. "The next year's state budget earmarks 100,000 kroons ($5,700) for this, so we can announce a tender to find the performer of the job," Laur said.
DANGEROUS WEATHER: Over 20 people have died from hypothermia in Lithuania during the first two weeks of cold wintry weather. The victims, who were between 34 and 74 years of age, were almost all homeless and found near garbage bins, uninhabited buildings and warehouses. Twelve people froze to death in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius alone, while the remaining deaths were recorded in other cities around the nation. According to the Lithuanian Meteorological Service, the temperature had dropped to 13 degrees Celsius below zero during several nights in Vilnius in November. Temperatures didn't dip so low last year until December or January. The temperatures this December are also low, dropping to 10 degrees Celsius below zero at night.
HOOP DREAMS: After a protracted battle, Lithuanian diplomats were defeated by a mere two points in a basketball match with the U.S. State Department's dream team, which was playing on their home turf in Washington D.C. After the hoops match headed into overtime, the Americans managed to pull out a narrow win with a final score of 61 to 59 over the Lithuanian embassy team. According to some players, who chose to remain nameless, the deciding factor was Lithuanian Foreign Minister Antanas Valionis, who was just too diplomatic for the competitive sport of basketball. While Valionis' coaching skills were excellent, problems surfaced when he donned a jersey and hit the court. As befits a politician, his defense was top-notch, but he - diplomatically - passed up the chance to score so his American colleagues could seize the initiative. It wasn't the first time politics have come between the basket and hoop when the Lithuanians and Americans have faced off. Two of the three previous games were tainted with allegations of match-throwing to the American side, although Lithuanian diplomats vigorously denied any foul play. During the first face off, Wall Street Journal Europe reporter Ben Smith, who was playing for the Americans, reported that Lithuanian Ambassador to the U.S. Vygaudas Usackas was diplomatically unwilling to block the shots of U.S. Senator Gordon Smith. Lithuania lost.