A videotape of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky speaking in a dull voice was delivered to RFE/RL Tuesday night. Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports that after days of contradictory Russian versions of Babitsky's fate and whereabouts, the videotape only poses more questions than it answers.
Moscow, 9 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Clutching a piece of cloth to his face, Andrei Babitsky speaks in a low, halting voice on the 59-second videotape delivered to RFE/RL's Moscow bureau Tuesday night.
"Today is the 6th of February, 2000. Everything is, relatively, all right. The only problem is time, because the circumstances are such that, unfortunately, I can't come home right away. Well. Here it's O.K. Well, as far as it can be O.K. in war conditions. The people who are around me are trying somehow to help me. The only problem is that I want to come home, that I want all this to end at last. That's that. And don't worry about me, I hope that I will be home soon. That's all."
His message, and the manner in which he delivers it, do little to dispel the apprehension caused by his disappearance and the string of contradictions given by Russian authorities. Nothing Babitsky says on the tape can be independently confirmed.
The tape was delivered on the same day that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) demanded that Russia provide proof that Babitsky is alive or face unspecified consequences.
On the videotape, Babitsky is filmed sitting in front of a white wall. His clothes are different from the ones he was wearing on an earlier videotape that showed his purported handover to the Chechens. His drawn face looks straight into the camera.
According to Mario Corti, acting director of RFE/RL's Russian service, the tape was first offered to a BBC correspondent in Moscow, who suggested that it should go to Radio Liberty. It was brought by a man who identified himself as a Chechen. He was accompanied by a man wearing the insignia of Interior Ministry special forces. RFE/RL released the tape to Russian independent television (NTV).
The tape was purportedly made after Russian authorities said the 35-year-old journalist volunteered to be handed over to Chechen militants in exchange for two Russian prisoners of war. That exchange supposedly took place on February 3. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has repeatedly said the Chechens are not holding Babitsky.
Russian authorities detained Babitsky as he was leaving Grozny last month, allegedly because he lacked proper journalistic accreditation. Before the alleged exchange for POWs, Russian authorities had said they were going to release him. After reporting the exchange, Russian authorities said they were no longer responsible for his safety. That assertion prompted speculation that Babitsky had already been harmed.
RFE/RL's Corti says the latest videotape presents many inconsistencies. He says there are indications that the speech was coerced and that Babitsky was trying to make that understood.
"But I noticed right away -- I am, after all, an audio specialist, and I know Babitsky well, I know his style of speech. And on this tape there are certain intonations, certain pauses. There are two moments. He says 'today is the sixth of February 2000. Everything is relatively okay. The only problem is time.' Then there is a long pause. What could that mean? He could have wanted to show, but I can't say this is 100 percent certain, that it means that the date he gave is wrong." According to Corti, the other meaningful pause comes after the phrase 'the people who are around me are trying somehow.' Corti wonders whether Babitsky means they are trying to do something else besides help him.
More ominously, Corti says, it looks as if Babitsky has been beaten.
Russian journalists have also pointed out inconsistencies in an earlier videotape that showed the purported POW exchange. In that tape, the person who receives Babitsky in the handoff is wearing a mask, which is not characteristic of Chechen field commanders, and he grabs Babitsky menacingly, rather than welcoming him as a friend. And the exchange supposedly took place deep inside Russian-controlled territory, where Chechen commanders would almost certainly not go.
A lack of information about the Russian soldiers for whom Babitsky was supposedly exchanged adds to the doubt. At first, officials said he was exchanged for three soldiers, then they said two. Then they said that one soldier (Nikolai Zavarzin) had been released earlier; after that they said he was released days later. On Monday, Russian officials announced that two more soldiers had been released in exchange for Babitsky.
The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a group that keeps careful lists of all missing soldiers, said they could not identify the soldiers who were purportedly released by the Chechens.