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Russia Claims Journalist Was Traded for Imprisoned Soldiers

By Richard C. Paddock
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MOSCOW

A correspondent for U.S.-funded Radio Liberty who was arrested while covering the war in Chechnya was handed over to Chechen rebels Thursday in exchange for three Russian soldiers, the Kremlin announced.

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, the government’s chief spokesman on the Chechen war, said that veteran journalist Andrei Babitsky had been given to Islamic separatists despite earlier reports that he would be released and flown to Moscow.

“He is now in the hands of the rebels and the responsibility for him lies with those who traded the three servicemen for him,” the Kremlin aide told reporters.

The announcement stunned Babitsky’s colleagues at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and was met with disbelief by supporters and human rights advocates. Some suggested that the bizarre report of a prisoner exchange was a cover story fabricated to hide the fact that Babitsky had been killed in the custody of Russian troops.

“This is a barbarity,” said Babitsky’s lawyer, Henri Reznik. “Unfortunately, journalists in the North Caucasus have been placed on the same footing as rebels -- a pen on the same footing as a bayonet -- and this alarms all of us. There is every reason today to be worried about Babitsky’s life.”

The Babitsky case threatened to make relations between Washington and Moscow -- already rocky -- even worse. State Department spokesman James Foley called the exchange “disturbing” and “unacceptable” and said: “If this report proves true, it would raise very serious questions about Russia’s adherence to its international commitments regarding the treatment of noncombatants.”

Even before word of the exchange came out, the issue of Babitsky’s mid-January arrest had attained such a high profile that it came up this week during the Moscow visit of U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- who sits on the board of the radio network. The U.S. Embassy in Moscow had earlier raised the issue. Acting President Vladimir Putin had said he was taking a personal interest in the case.