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Reporter Turned Over to Chechens

February 3, 2000

MOSCOW (AP) _ Russian officials released a reporter for U.S.-financed Radio Liberty to Chechen rebels today in exchange for three Russian prisoners of war, a top presidential aide said.

The reporter, Andrei Babitsky, was detained in Chechnya in mid-January. Russian authorities said he did not have proper accreditation to work in the war zone.

Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky said Babitsky had agreed to a Chechen proposal that he be exchanged for the Russian POWs, Russian media reported. Yastrzhembsky showed reporters what he said was a copy of Babitsky’s written agreement to the trade. The agreement said the reporter ``wanted to cooperate in the liberation of soldiers being held by force.″

Yastrzhembsky said federal authorities could not take responsibility for Babitsky’s welfare, the Interfax news agency reported.

Babitsky had been working in Chechnya for months, and his critical coverage of the war angered Russian officials. Officials accused him of cooperating with the rebels, and some pro-government media branded him a traitor.

Babitsky’s wife, Lyudmila Babitskaya, told The Associated Press that she was ``stunned″ by Yastrzhembsky’s announcement and had not believed officials’ previous assurances that her husband was alive and well.

Prosecutors and Radio Liberty representatives did not immediately comment.

Russian authorities have been tangling with journalists who chafe at the military’s restrictions on travel in the combat zone. A number of western reporters have been briefly detained in Chechnya for lacking proper accreditation.

Meanwhile, the secretary of Russia’s Security Council called on the media to join the government’s efforts to defeat Chechen rebels and to deny militants any airtime. In an interview published today in the daily Komsomolskaya Pravda, Sergei Ivanov said he was not ``encroaching on the freedom of speech, but there must be limits and a precise understanding of what can and cannot be done.″

``Use Chechen informers if you want. Just don’t put terrorists on the air,″ he was quoted as saying.

Russian media have been largely supportive of Russia’s war effort, and few report from the Chechen side. The rebels’ point of view is most often presented through foreign reports broadcast on television or reprinted in Russian newspapers.

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