More than a month after RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky's disappearance in Chechnya, Russian acting President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday told British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook that the journalist is alive and in the hands of Chechen civilians. But Putin -- like other Russian officials who have commented recently on Babitsky -- failed to explain how he knows this or to provide details of the reporter's whereabouts. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini brings us up to date.
Moscow, 24 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- "We don't have him, but we know he is alive." That is the line Russian officials continue to take on Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky, who has been missing since he was arrested in Chechnya by Russian forces more than a month ago (circa Jan. 16). They do not explain how they can know he is alive and yet not know where he is or who is holding him.
After meeting with Russian acting President Vladimir Putin in Moscow Wednesday morning, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told reporters that Putin told him Russian authorities are aware that Babitsky is alive and with civilians. Cook called this "welcome news," but said "we would also welcome direct contact" with Babitsky.
According to British diplomats who spoke with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Putin also told Cook that Russian special services were doing their utmost to ensure that Babitsky would not suffer from Moscow's current military operations in Chechnya.
Putin's cryptic remarks are in keeping with comments about Babitsky by other Russian officials in the past 10 days.
Russia's Information Minister Mikhail Lesin told the Ekho Moskvy radio station Tuesday that Chechen field commanders are using Babitsky as a shield against Russian troops.
"It is totally clear that the Russian authorities do not know what is going on with Babitsky. Not only that. There are intelligence reports that the Chechens themselves are using Babitsky as a shield because it is clear that wherever Babitsky is, Russian forces will not conduct an aggressive fight with the bandits because they could kill Babitsky. And no one wants to take that responsibility."
Lesin did not explain how it is possible that Russian forces could avoid attacking an area harboring Babitsky when they do not know where he is.
No official has provided any evidence that the war correspondent, who angered the Russian government with his reports direct from the scene of the fighting in Grozny, is alive.
In the past few days, several government officials have weighed in, with varying degrees of vagueness. Sergei Ivanov, the head of the Russian Security Council, says that Russian intelligence agencies know more or less where Babitsky is -- in the south of Chechnya. Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo says Babitsky is alive, but his whereabouts are unknown. And Moscow's newly appointed adviser for human rights in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, says only that Babitsky will soon return to Moscow.
Russian authorities have said they released Babitsky from custody in early February and that he volunteered to be traded to Chechen militants in exchange for Russian soldiers -- an exchange that, if it took place, violated international conventions on prisoners of war.
Some analysts cast doubt on the validity of a videotape purporting to show the exchange. The tape, said to have been filmed by agents of the Federal Security Bureau, the FSB, shows Babitsky being handed over to masked men. Journalist Aleksandr Yevtushenko, a correspondent for "Komsomolskaya Pravda," says he has talked to FSB agents in Chechnya who say that they are the masked men in the videotape, not any Chechen militants.
And on Tuesday, Nikolai Kovalyov, a State Duma deputy who used to be the head of the FSB said that in his opinion, the videotape does not look genuine. He said it does not contain the usual information given in such films, such as the specific time and location of the recording.
Rumors are rife in Chechnya as to the status and location of Babitsky.
At a refugee camp in Ingushetia, Radio Liberty correspondent Vladimir Dolin spoke with a 20-year-old Chechen known only as "Rezvan," who said he saw Babitsky in a cell in Chechnya several weeks ago, before the alleged prisoner exchange. Rezvan's testimony cannot be independently corroborated.
Dolin says Rezvan could not stand up because his legs were swollen and his spine damaged from beatings.
The young Chechen says he spent three weeks in what the Russians call a "filtration" camp in Chernokozovo, where he shared a cell with Babitsky for about an hour. Refugees who have been in those camps have told international human rights organizations that the camps are the scene of torture and rape.
Rezvan said that the short time he spent with Babitsky came in between two beatings.
"I was with Babitsky an hour, not more than an hour. I was taken from the 'cesspool' to interrogation -- that is, from beatings to interrogation. And then when the interrogation process was over, they beat me again and then put me into cell [number] 17 with Babitsky. When they put me into the cell, [they] took out another [man]. They beat him up and then put him back. Then the [guard] said 'Babitsky -- out with your things.' [Babitsky] had a dirty face. He had a bag, a plastic bag -- I don't know, a bag. He took the bag, stood up, and was taken out [of the cell]."
Rezvan says Babitsky was beaten severely.
"We [whispered] about him. One guy said: 'That Babitsky is a resistant person. With the blows he got. I would've been dead a long time ago. Babitsky is a resistant person -- that's what they said.'"
Today (Thursday) is the 40th day since Babitsky's wife, Lyudmila, last heard from him.