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Chechnya: U.S Advises Russia To Permit Media To Report Freely

The U.S. State Department says Russia would be "well advised" to provide the necessary accreditation to journalists to report freely from Chechnya. RFE/RL's Lisa McAdams reports:

Washington, 18 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- State Department Spokesman James Rubin was responding to reports that Russian foreign ministry officials had lodged a protest over meetings earlier in the week (Monday) at the State Department between U.S. officials and Chechen separatist figure Seilam Beshayev.

Rubin said yesterday that U.S. officials were not aware of any such complaint from Moscow. But he said the U.S. would not be forced to seek information from sources Russian officials might find objectionable, if the U.S. and others weren't forced to operate in the present "vacuum" of information.

"I think it's ironic that the Russians are denying the required accreditation for journalists to go to Chechnya, report the facts, let the facts speak for themselves, and then concerned when we seek the facts from other sources because there is no real freedom to report from that war zone."

Rubin also cited the United States' "profound concern" about the fate of RFE/RL Correspondent Andrei Babitsky, whose condition and whereabouts in Chechnya are still unknown. He also reiterated that Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had made clear in recent talks with acting President Vladimir Putin that Russia would be held responsible:

"She (Secretary Albright) did raise the issue of Mr. Babitsky and the fate of Babitsky, and expressed our profound concern that Russia resolve this matter and that Mr. Babitsky's whereabouts become clear. She made clear that we hold Russia responsible for his fate, that we regard it as unacceptable to treat a working journalist as if they were some kind of prisoner of war."

On a related note, Rubin indicated U.S. favour for Russia naming a special representative to respond to complaints about human rights abuses in Chechnya. This, after Acting President Vladimir Putin yesterday named Vladimir Kalamanov -- Chief of the Federal Migration Service -- to the new post.

Our correspondent reports that the U.S. response starkly contrasts with that of international humanitarian organizations, who were quick to react with skepticism.

Rubin was later asked how confident he was that Kalamanov would be able to uncover what was really going on in Chechnya, given the varying accounts by Russian officials. He said he would not want to exaggerate U.S. hopes. But Rubin expressed confidence that with the international community as united as it was on its concerns about Chechnya that Russia -- "as a matter of principle and in seeking good standing in the international community" -- would want to respond and follow through.

Rubin said the U.S. also is urging the Russian government to conduct a full, comprehensive and transparent investigation of alleged atrocities in Chechnya. And he noted that U.S. concern about rights violations in Chechnya has in point of fact "heightened" in recent days.