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Russia: Missing Radio Liberty Reporter Feared Detained

  • Jolyon Naegele

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has appealed to the Russian government to secure the release of a Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent in Chechnya, Andrei Babitsky, if he is being held by Russian forces. The U.S. State Department has also expressed concern about the missing reporter. RFE/RL's Russian Service talked to several reporters who say they believe Russian forces have detained Babitsky.

Prague, 31 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The whereabouts of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky are unknown. He last filed a story on January 15 from the Chechen capital Grozny, where he was one of very few journalists reporting on the war.

As of last week, several reporters have said they believe Babitsky is being detained outside Grozny by Russian federal forces.

Radio Liberty's other North Caucasus correspondent, Hasin Raduyev, says he believes that his colleague is being detained by Russian federal troops in a cellar in Urus Martan, a city southwest of Grozny. No independent confirmation could be obtained.

Radio Liberty's Moscow bureau chief, Savik Shuster, says a Chechen militia that is loyal to Russia (under the command of Beslan Gantamirov) is believed to be operating in Urus Martan.

Petra Prochazkova, a Czech journalist based in Russia, says her Chechen sources told her that Babitsky had been detained by federal forces. But she says the term "federal forces" was vague and could mean anyone on the Russian side.

The Interfax news agency reported Thursday that Babitsky may have been detained by an OMON special forces sub-unit in the Grozny district and at present may be under investigation to determine how he got into the battle zone without proper accreditation.

Our Moscow correspondent Vladimir Dolin says the whole issue of accreditation in the war zone is unresolved. He says Babitsky had applied to the Russian forces press center in Mozdok, but discovered, as had other reporters there, that the press center was not helpful in allowing reporters access to the war zone.

Dolin insists that, by law, accreditation is not required for a journalist to work in the Chechen conflict zone. Therefore, he says, lack of accreditation should not be a reason to detain Babitsky.

Babitsky's wife, Ludmila, says employees of the Federal Security Service, the FSB, searched their Moscow apartment and took away negatives and photographs Babitsky had sent her from Chechnya. The FSB later returned the items.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's aide for information on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, has denied any knowledge of Babitsky having been detained.

"Detained by federal forces? I am not aware of such information. I am aware that Mr. Babitsky actually left Grozny and went missing. Our side is making efforts to track down where your correspondent is. In this instance, I would say this is an instructive case, which must help us all find the correct formula for working together. Mr. Babitsky, to my deep regret, was not accredited to cover the military lines on the territory of the Chechen Republic. Naturally, his security was not guaranteed or assured and I think this is an example which shows how one should not work in a territory where military operations are underway. For our side, I repeat, we will make an effort to find the location of your colleague."

International officials have appealed to the Russian government to cooperate in locating the Radio Liberty reporter.

The OSCE's representative for freedom of the media, Freimut Duve, sent a message to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Thursday, saying that if Babitsky was in the control of Russian forces, he should be released immediately.

Jeff Trimble, RFE/RL's director of broadcasting, announced Thursday that the station is increasingly concerned about Babitsky's fate. He said that RFE/RL has contacted international human rights and media organizations as well as senior Russian officials as part of the station's effort to find Babitsky.

Trimble is in Moscow to meet with Russian officials and others to seek information about Babitsky's whereabouts. Trimble said "Andrei Babitsky is one of our most distinguished and courageous journalists, and our station will do everything it can to locate him and provide for his safe return."

In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin said Thursday that the United States expressed "the fullest possible support" for the RFE/RL officials.

"We're aware that Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky, a Russian citizen, has not been heard from since January 15th. We understand that Radio Liberty officials are going to Russia to work on establishing his welfare and whereabouts. We have been concerned about the safety of journalists who have chosen to report from the combat zone, and if we have not yet, I am sure we will be raising this issue with Russian officials."

Babitsky is 36-years old and has worked for RFE/RL for more than ten years, covering the first Chechen war (1994-96) as well as the current one.