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Robert Parsons reports from Moscow
"Radio Liberty considers Acting President Vladimir Putin directly responsible for Mr Babitsky's fate"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 9 February, 2000, 11:23 GMT
Missing Russian journalist surfaces in video

Babitsky hand over Russian soldiers prepare to hand over Babitsky (second left) on 3 February


A Russian television station has shown the first footage of journalist Andrei Babitsky since he was swapped for Russian soldiers in rebel Chechnya last week.

Battle for the Caucasus
Mr Babitsky, a Russian citizen who works for the American-funded station Radio Liberty, had earlier been seized by Russian forces after a reporting trip to the Chechen capital Grozny.

"It is 6 February, 2000," Mr Babitsky says in the video, suggesting it was filmed after the swap, which the Russian military say was carried out with his agreement.



The only problem is that I really want home, I want all this to end as soon as possible. Do not worry, I will be back home soon.
Andrei Babitsky
The video - which was delivered to the BBC office in Moscow on Tuesday and shown on Russian television - shows him talking slowly but clearly for 44 seconds, seated in front of a white wall, a white handkerchief in his hand.

"I am relatively all right. The only problem is time because the circumstances are such that I cannot immediately return home," Mr Babitsky says.

"It is all right here as far as it can be normal amid warfare. People, who are with me, are trying to help me.

Fears

The director of Radio Liberty's Moscow bureau, Savik Schuster, said he still feared for Mr Babitsky's safety.


Pro-Babitsky demonstration Chechen refugees at a camp in neighbouring Ingushetia demonstrate in support of Babitsky
According to the radio station's unidentified sources, Mr Babitsky was last seen on Monday - the day after the message was apparently taped - in Gudermes, Chechnya's second city which is under Russian control.

The journalist had been severely beaten, according to the source.

Mr Babitsky was last in contact by telephone on 15 January.

Mr Schuster said there was no guarantee that the video really was filmed on 6 February, adding that it gave no indication of where he was being held nor by whom.

Chechen denial

Mr Babitsky, one of the leading war reporters in Russia, had been covering the Chechen conflict from rebel-held areas, including Grozny.


Russian soldier Russian soldiers are still on their guard in Grozny
During his attempt to leave the besieged city last month he was seized by Russian troops and accused of being part of a rebel group, which he denies.

After days of detention in Chechnya, Russian officials said Mr Babitsky was formally freed but had volunteered to be swapped for Russian prisoners of war held by one of the Chechen groups.

Russian television has shown video of the handover to a group of masked men last Thursday, but the rebels later denied any of their commanders have been involved in such a swap.

'Hundreds killed'

Residents of villages south-west of Grozny report hundreds of people killed or wounded after several days of Russian aerial and artillery attacks.

Russian forces were pursuing suspected Chechen fighters who were fleeing the capital.


Russian soldiers Russian soldiers take a break at a position near the Argun Gorge
Shelling of Shaami-Yurt, Katyr-Yurt and Gekhi-Chu has now eased after several days of heavy pounding, which residents say has left close to three-quarters of the houses damaged.

Russian planes and artillery are continuing to bombard suspected rebel hide-outs in the mountains south of Grozny, while Chechen fighters reportedly staged several overnight attacks on the Russian-controlled districts of Achkhoi-Martan and Urus-Martan, as well as in the eastern town of Argun.

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See also:
03 Feb 00 |  Europe
Journalist exchanged for Russian soldiers
04 Feb 00 |  Europe
Liberty journalist handed to Chechens
07 Feb 00 |  Europe
New government for Chechnya
01 Feb 00 |  Europe
Analysis: Conflict not over yet
07 Feb 00 |  Europe
Putin: 'Grozny liberated'
03 Feb 00 |  Europe
Chechen rebels 'set up mountain base'

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