Russian officials seek journalist they claim they gave to Chechens

Man's whereabouts unknown

authorities want to question him

February 15, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- It has been nearly two weeks since Russian authorities announced that they had handed over a captive Radio Liberty reporter to Chechen rebels, and now, amid the international outcry and skepticism that have followed, they say they want him after all.

The whereabouts of Andrei Babitsky, who was shown on a Federal Security Service videotape being delivered Feb. 4 into the custody of a masked man described as a Chechen fighter, are unknown. The Chechen government of Aslan Maskhadov says it doesn't have him. His supporters think he might be held in detention by Russian special services, a Chechen group allied with Moscow or a Chechen kidnapping gang.

The chief of Radio Liberty's Russian service said yesterday that he fears Babitsky is dead.

The general prosecutor's office is considering issuing an arrest warrant for Babitsky if he doesn't turn himself in, the Interfax news agency reported last night.

Having claimed that they gave him away, Russian law enforcement authorities now say that Babitsky is wanted for questioning. They are planning to ask Interpol to help arrest him, Interfax reported.

They say new evidence leads them to suspect him of having taken part in fighting with a rebel "band formation."

In his years with the radio station financed by the U.S. government, Babitsky has earned a reputation for fearless reporting. He enraged Russian officials with his accounts from Grozny, the Chechen capital. He was among the first to report that more than 100 Russian soldiers had been killed in the city when Russian generals were denying that troops had been sent in.

The disquieting story of his detention and transfer began in mid-January, but for the past two weeks the criticism, in Russia and abroad, has been mushrooming. The scorn heaped on the Russian government for its handling of the Babitsky case has been intense. Russian journalists have characterized it as a blatant assault on the press and a display of brazen disregard for Babitsky's rights as a Russian citizen.

Beyond that, the case reveals the government to be making almost no attempt to put forward a credible explanation of what happened. Changing versions are offered with what Babitsky's colleagues believe to be a Soviet-style disdain for plausibility.

Babitsky disappeared without a trace a month ago. Then it turned out that for two weeks, federal forces had been holding him incommunicado for working in Chechnya without accreditation.

He was supposed to be on his way to Moscow. Then it turned out that he was being given over to someone in exchange for three Russian prisoners, as if he were a hostage. Then it was two. Then the army said it wasn't an exchange for prisoners, but the Interior Ministry said it was.

None of the ministries said they had anything to do with it. Then the Interior Ministry acknowledged after several days that it had handled the matter. But the video of Babitsky was taken by another agency, the Federal Security Service. That, a spokesman said, was only because one of their men happened along with a video camera at the moment of the handover on a deserted stretch of highway.

Sergei Grigoryants, who leads a human rights group, said yesterday that an analysis of the video, based particularly on the amount of snow that was visible on the ground, casts doubt on the government's explanation of where and when the handover took place.

A second video surfaced a few days after the first, showing Babitsky saying he was being treated well but wanted to rejoin his family. The circumstances of that video are unclear. His wife, Lyudmila, says it raises more questions than it answers.

Yesterday, she filed an official missing-person report with the Moscow police, which under Russian law requires them to open a case and do what they can to find her husband.

Grigoryants said he plans to file a lawsuit against Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the government's chief Chechnya spokesman, alleging that he lied.

Russia's interior minister said Sunday that swapping Babitsky was standard procedure.

"The situation was resolved correctly and was justified," Vladimir Rushailo said on Russian television.

He said he understood that Babitsky was in southern Chechnya.

Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Federal Security Service, said yesterday that his agency had received reports that Babitsky was in Turkey and would be flying to Poland, but he said that could not be confirmed.

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