Missing for more than 40 days, Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky has turned up in the Russian republic of Dagestan in the custody of Russian authorities.
Prague, 27 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Andrei Babitsky is in detention in the Russian republic of Dagestan, where he has been held since Friday.
His exact whereabouts, however, are still unclear. Officials at Dagestan's Interior Ministry told RFE/RL correspondent Vladimir Dolin on Sunday that Babitsky was in a detention center in the Kirovsky district of Makhachkala, but an official at that center (Magomed Magomedov) denied it.
Babitsky telephoned his wife on Friday from Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan. Before the call, he had not been heard from for more than 40 days after he was arrested by Russian authorities in Chechnya. The authorities said Babitsky had been handed over to Chechen militants in exchange for Russian prisoners of war, an illegal act that was internationally condemned. But the Chechen government denied any knowledge of his whereabouts, and his family and colleagues had feared for his safety.
Oleg Kusov, a colleague of Babitsky's at Radio Liberty, also spoke to him on Friday. Kusov told RFE/RL that Babitsky appears to be in good health.
"When I went to the room of the head press service of the Interior Ministry of Dagestan. where he (Babitsky) is located. I saw Andrei right away and I was glad that he looks good, casual, rather healthy and reflective. We talked together for a long time. We spent the whole night in that room."
Russian Interior Ministry officials say Babitsky was detained in Makhachkala on Friday during a document check. They say he was carrying a forged Azerbaijani passport. He has been charged with forging documents, which carries a penalty of up to two years imprisonment.
It is unclear how Babitsky could have obtained such a passport. Dagestan's Deputy Interior Minister Magomed Omarov told Interfax that, during questioning, Babitsky said he does not know who brought him to Dagestan or what route he traveled. Omarov says Babitsky told authorities he was brought to Dagestan by masked men.
Russian television yesterday (Saturday) showed footage allegedly taken from an interrogation the day before. In the footage, Babitsky says he had agreed earlier this month to be handed over to Chechen field commander Turpal-Ali Atgeriyev in exchange for Russian prisoners of war.
But Babitsky's colleague Kusov says that what is missing from that footage is the rest of Babitsky's explanation of the exchange. Kusov says that when Babitsky saw he was being given to masked men and that Atgeriyev was not present, he refused to be exchanged but was handed over anyway.
"He (Babitsky) voluntarily signed the declaration [about the exchange] but he meant specifically field commander Atgeriyev. When he understood he would not end up with Atgeriyev. He refused the exchange but he did it verbally in front of the camera, in front of the camera operator who was filming, and of course that moment was edited out and did not appear on television."
Russian television early this month aired a videotape showing scenes from the exchange, in which Babitsky was seen shrinking away from a masked man.
The acting head of RFE/RL's Russian Service, Mario Corti, traveled to Makhachkala on Sunday, along with Babitsky's wife and lawyer. RFE/RL President Thomas Dine says he will do everything possible to ensure that Babitsky is released from detention and returned to his family immediately.
The U.S. government says gaining Babitsky's freedom is a top priority. Assistant Secretary of State Harold Koh said Friday:
"Obviously Babitsky's case is extremely disturbing. It's a top priority. We have said both public[ly] and privately that we hold the government of Russia responsible for Babitsky's fate. And we supported the efforts of others, particularly of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, to try to learn about his whereabouts and to win his freedom."
RFE/RL's Savik Shuster says Interior Ministry officials have asked Kusov about what the officials call Babitsky's "friendship" with Chechen field commanders. Shuster says that implies that authorities are still considering charging Babitsky with aiding the fighters. RFE/RL says Babitsky has always conducted himself as a professional, objective journalist.
Babitsky angered Russian generals with his eyewitness reporting of the bombardment of Chechnya. His disappearance came two days after he reported heavy civilian casualties.