Int. Herald Tribune
Reporter tells of role in Chechen swap

By David Hoffman

Paris, Monday, February 28, 2000


MOSCOW - Andrei Babitsky, the Russian reporter for the U.S.-funded Radio Liberty who resurfaced Friday night after disappearing in Chechnya for more than a month, has shed some new light on a strange episode in which the Russian military exchanged him to Chechen rebels for Russians they had captured.

Mr. Babitsky said he initially consented to the trade, but it went wrong.

One of the few journalists to reach and report from the Chechen side, Mr. Babitsky's dispatches infuriated Russian authorities. He was arrested Jan. 23 and, according to his lawyers, was charged under the Russian Criminal Code with helping separatist Chechen guerrillas.

Then on Feb. 3, Russian officials unexpectedly announced that Mr. Babitsky had agreed to a prisoner trade and he was shown on a brief videotape being handed over to masked men. He disappeared, arousing international concern about the exchange and his whereabouts.

[Mr. Babitsky was put under formal arrest in Makhachkala, Dagestan, on Sunday, apparently charged with carrying a forged Azerbaijani passport, The Associated Press reported.

[His lawyer, Alexander Zozulya, said Mr. Babitsky was interrogated at the Dagestani Interior Ministry.]

Mr. Babitsky was detained Friday night at the Caspian Hotel in Makhachkala. According to Russian television, Mr. Babitsky and some Chechens accompanying him had tried to cross into Azerbaijan the day before but failed.

Russian television broadcast footage of Interior Ministry officials interrogating Mr. Babitsky. The reporter acknowledged that he was carrying a false passport but said that he was doing so because he had no other document and was afraid of revealing his whereabouts and his identity.

In discussing the swap during the interrogation, Mr. Babitsky said the plan originated while he was being held at Chernokozovo, a Russian detention center for Chechen fighters that human rights advocates say has been the site of beatings and torture.

Mr. Babitsky said he was approached by a man who identified himself only as a representative of "a commission for setting free Russian prisoners of war in Chechnya." The man said the Chechens wanted Mr. Babitsky in exchange for Russian soldiers.

"I pondered this for about 10 minutes, then decided that I was prepared," he said. But he had insisted he be handed over to a Chechen commander he knew, Turpal-ali Atgeriyev.

Oleg Kusov, a fellow journalist who met up with Mr. Babitsky in Dagestan a day before the arrest, told reporters that "when Babitsky saw a masked man" at the point of the trade, "he realized that it was not Atgeriyev" and tried to back out. But it was too late.




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