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Chechnya: Journalist Reportedly In Russian Custody

Prague, 28 January 2000 (RFE/RL) - The Russian news agency Interfax reports today that RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky, missing in Chechnya since mid-January, has been detained by Russian authorities and charged with "participating in an illegal armed formation." Russian government agencies have not confirmed the report and no other news organization has carried independent confirmation. RFE/RL President Thomas Dine said he is confident Babitsky has not violated any Russian laws and that Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty will do everything in its power to secure his rapid release.

Dine said "Andrei Babitsky is a courageous journalist committed to the highest standards of his profession. He has always worked within the laws of the countries from which he has reported, and all of us at RFE/RL are confident that any charges to the contrary will be found to be baseless."

Since RFE/RL announced this week that Babitsky was missing, Western governments, international and Russian media groups, and human rights organizations have issued appeals to the Russian government to help locate Babitsky and free him if he is being detained.

Meanwhile, a Russian general says most civilians in Chechnya's capital city are now in Russian-controlled areas. ITAR-TASS quotes a deputy commander of the North Caucasus forces, Lieut.-General Gennadii Troshev, as saying that very few civilians remain in rebel-controlled parts of Grozny following an almost-two-week Russian seige of the city. The claim could not be independently confirmed.

The Russian air force has shifted its bombing operations away from Grozny toward rebel bases in the mountainous south of the republic. Up to 8,000 Chechen fighters and mercenaries are thought to be camped in the mountains.

In the Russian republic of Ingushetia, President Ruslan Aushev has accused federal officials in Moscow of denying aid to Chechen refugees in an attempt to force them to return home. Ingushetia, which borders Chechnya, has taken in more than 150,000 refugees who have fled the fighting in Chechnya.