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Missing Russian Journalist Resurfaces

Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky makes a surprise appearance on TV as furious speculation over his fate reaches fever pitch
By Michael Randall

The man in the Mercedes gave his name only as Alexei. His companion in the passenger seat, dressed in a Russian Interior Ministry uniform, was introduced as Maerbek. They got straight down to business.

Alexei said he had a video-tape filmed two days previously, showing missing Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky in the hands of unidentified captors. He refused to reveal its source or to speculate where the journalist might be at the present time. His motives were rather more prosaic.

Representatives of the American-funded radio station who met with Alexei bought the tape for $300. It was screened on NTV on February 9, countering growing fears that Babitsky was in fact dead.

The development was followed by a sudden announcement from a leading Chechen in Moscow that the reporter was being held by the rebels after all - a fact which they have been denying for the past week. The saga had apparently turned full circle.

This latest twist marked the climax to a confusing chain of events which has seen Babitsky condemned, buried and resurrected on several occasions over the past month.

The Radio Liberty reporter became the focus of an international outcry after he went missing on January 15 whilst attempting to leave the Chechen capital. He had previously exasperated federal authorities by his unbiased reports from the breakaway republic.

Moscow refused to admit Babitsky was in federal custody until January 28 when he was charged with entering the military exclusion zone without the necessary accreditation. However, less than a week later, the Russian authorities announced that the journalist had been handed over to the Chechens in exchange for two Russian prisoners-of-war.

The exchange was screened on national television, showing a dishevelled and depressed Babitsky being surrendered to two masked men in combat uniforms. Chechen leaders promptly denied that that rebel fighters had taken part in the deal while human rights activists around the world condemned the trade as a breach of the Geneva Convention.

The unexpected move prompted speculation that the handover was faked by Russian special services in a bid to discredit Babitsky and that the masked men were in fact federal agents posing as rebels for the benefit of the TV cameras. Colleagues at Radio Liberty said this could mean Babitsky had been turned over to an execution squad. The Russians, they explained, were attempting to blame the Chechens for his death.

The federal press centre named an Usa Khodzhayev as the field commander who orchestrated the swap but rebel leaders quickly countered that there was no one of that name in the guerrilla forces.

The release of the second video-tape coincided exactly with a deadline set by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for proof that Babitsky is alive. The OSCE's special representative on freedom of the media, Freimut Duve, had threatened "further action" if the Russians failed to meet the deadline.

The latest video-tape shows Babitsky sitting against a greyish wall, clutching a dirty rag in his hands. He speaks slowly, his voice cracking with tension.

"Today is February 6, 2000. I'm relatively OK. The only problem is time, as circumstances unfortunately make it impossible for me to return home in the near future. Things are all right here, as far as things can be all right in a warzone. The people I'm with are trying to help me. The only problem is that I want to go home, I want all this to be over. Don't worry about me. I will be home soon."

Later in the day, Sharil Yusupov, special representative of Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov in Moscow, told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that Babitsky was currently being held by rebel forces, although Maskhadov himself had dismissed this possibility in an interview on February 8. It was also denied by vice-president Vakha Arsanov and propaganda minister Movladi Udugov in separate statements.

Yusupov said that the exchange took place on February 3 or 4 and was staged by two rebel field commanders, Turpal-Ali Atgeriev and Islambek Ismailov. On the same day, the Radio Liberty head office in Prague received a call from a man who claimed to be Atgeriev, also Chechnya's security minister, and who said that he had played no part in the swap. The caller added that Andrei Babitsky was currently being held by Russian Interior Ministry troops in the Gudermes region.

Michael Randall is IWPR's Caucasus Project Editor.

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