Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 28

There was a new twist today in the story of Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, when NTV television showed broadcast footage of the missing journalist. Babitsky says on the tape that the date is February 6–three days ago–and declares that he is “relatively” all right and that his circumstances are normal “as far as they can be normal amid warfare.” Babitsky says that the people he is with “are trying to help me,” but that “the circumstances are such that I cannot immediately return home.” He concludes: “The only problem is that I really want to go home, I want all this to end as soon as possible. Do not worry, I will be back home soon” (NTV, February 9). The Russian authorities detained and jailed Babitsky in mid-January, and say that he was handed over to Chechen field commanders on February 3 in exchange for Russian POWs. The Russian side claims that he agreed to the exchange.

According to reports today, someone first offered the tape to the Moscow bureau of the British Broadcasting Corporation. It was finally obtained by Radio Liberty and later shown on NTV television. According to Radio Liberty, the person with the tape, who was not identified, wanted to sell it for US$300 (NTV, Radio Liberty, February 9). The radio station today voiced suspicions about the videotape: “Andrei speaks slowly, and judging by his intonation, does not at all feel as if he were surrounded by well-wishers” (Radio Liberty, February 9).

The appearance of the video coincided with assurances from top Russian government officials that Babitsky is alive. During a visit yesterday to Chechnya, Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo said the reporter was in the hands of Chechen rebels, and Press Minister Mikhail Lesin said that there were intercepts of radio exchanges between Chechen field commanders which prove that “nothing has happened” to Babitsky. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and other top Chechen officials and field commanders have denied that Babitsky was handed over to the rebels (see the Monitor, February 8). Yesterday, however, Lesin claimed that the Chechen denials are a “game” (Russian agencies, February 8). Russian newspapers, meanwhile, published contradictory information concerning the correspondent’s alleged whereabouts. One paper quoted Oleg Kusov, a Radio Liberty correspondent in Chechnya, as saying that Babitsky was handed over to Chechen field commander Aslambek Ismailov and is alive and unharmed, but added that the reporter’s fate is still cause for “serious concern” (Izvestia, February 9). Another newspaper, however, quoted its own correspondent in Chechnya as citing fresh reports that Babitsky is in the hands of Russian forces in Chechnya (Komsomolskaya pravda, February 9).

While no Russian official has taken responsibility for Babitsky’s “exchange,” Rushailo said yesterday that Interior Ministry personnel had participated in it. He also echoed Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Acting President Vladimir Putin’s pointman on Chechnya, saying that the swap was sanctioned by the Prosecutor General’s Office. Savik Shuster, Radio Liberty’s Moscow bureau chief, claimed yesterday that Putin “knew [of], watched and sanctioned” the handling of Babitsky (Russian agencies, February 8). Earlier this week, Yastrzhembsky said simply that Putin was “up on” the events surrounding Babitsky. Putin continues to say nothing publicly.