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Russia: U.S. Lodges 'Strong Protest' Over Babitsky Case

The White House has expressed concern and indignation about the case of missing Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky. The journalist was detained by Russian military authorities in Chechnya in mid-January. In an unusual development, Russian officials announced last Thursday that Babitsky was exchanged for three Russian soldiers held captive by Chechen fighters. In Washington, RFE/RL senior correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports.

Washington, 7 February 2000 ((RFE/RL) -- A top aide to U.S. President Bill Clinton says the United States has lodged a strong protest with Russia over its treatment of missing Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitsky.

Russian officials announced in Moscow last Thursday that they had exchanged Babitsky for three Russian soldiers kept prisoner by Chechen separatist fighters. Babitsky, a Russian citizen, was detained by the Russian military in Chechnya in mid-January for allegedly not having proper journalistic accreditation to cover the war. Babitsky's coverage of the war had reportedly angered Moscow.

White House Chief of Staff John Podesta on Sunday expressed concern about the Babitsky case on the U.S. television network Fox.

Podesta said: "We don't know his status, and we're obviously very concerned about it. We do not know his whereabouts. We have made our views known to the Russian government, we've pressed them on this issue. But at this point, we're very concerned about it, and we don't know his whereabouts."

Asked what he thought about the idea of trading journalists for combatants, Podesta said:

"It would be -- it would not only be a strange departure, but we think that it's wrong to seize journalists, obviously, and this would be extraordinary. And that's why we've made a strong protest to the Russian government."

No independent observers witnessed the swap. Babitsky has not been seen or heard from since the announcement of his handover.

Podesta said the Clinton administration is unable to shed any light on Babitsky's whereabouts.

U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Washington holds Russia responsible for Babitsky's safety.

Kremlin Spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky told reporters that the trade was proposed by a Chechen rebel commander and accepted by Babitsky.

RFE/RL President Thomas Dine said in a statement that he believes Babitsky performed according to the highest journalistic standards and violated no law.

Several members of the U.S. Congress also expressed concern about Babitsky's welfare.