President Boris Yeltsin's envoy to Chechnya, who has been seeking the release of kidnapped Russians, was himself seized Friday in or near the breakaway republic, the Interior Ministry said.

The apparent kidnapping of Valentin Vlasov underscored the lawlessness that has plagued Chechnya and surrounding areas since the republic's two-year war of secession against Russia.According to an Interior Ministry spokesman, who declined to identify himself, Vlasov was seized around noon near the town of Asinovskaya, on a highway leading from Rostov, Russia, to Baku, Azerbaijan.

Asinovskaya lies near the border of Chechnya and the Russian republic of Ingushetia, which also has been troubled by kidnappings and other crime.

According to the Interfax news agency, the Interior Ministry immediately dispatched a task force to investigate. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said he would assume personal control of the investigation on the Chechen side, and Vice President Kazbek Makhashev was reported to have arrived in Asinovskaya to oversee it.

Vlasov is a relatively low-ranking administration official.