**Updates IFEX alerts of 8, 7, 4, 2 and 1 February, 31 and 28 January 2000**
(RSF/IFEX) - The following is a 4 February 2000 RSF press release:
4 January 2000
For immediate release
Reporters sans frontières asks all actors in the Chechen conflict to guarantee the safety of journalist Andrei Babitsky
Reporters sans frontières, an international press freedom organisation, is alarmed by the fate of Andrei Babitsky, a Russian correspondent with the American radio station Radio Free Europe. The organisation vigorously protests the use of journalists as pawns towards exchanges and asks all actors in this matter to guarantee Andrei Babitsky's safety. Reporters sans frontières also asks international organisations, notably the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a member since 1996, to use their influence to see to it that Russian authorities respect the Geneva Convention, which stipulates that journalists must be considered as non-belligerant persons and protected as such in times of conflict.
According to Moscow authorities, on 3 February, Andrei Babitsky, detained by the military authorities, was allegedly exchanged for two Russian soldiers. The Kremlin states that the journalist allegedly agreed to be handed over to Chechen rebels and that he signed a release to that effect. For their part, Chechen leaders state that they have no information concerning the journalist and deny that there was any transaction with the Russian army. Vakha Arsanov, former vice-president of the independent republic, states that he does not know of any warlord named Tourpal Abguireev, who according to the Russians, allegedly asked for the exchange. Andrei Babitsky's colleagues, friends and family fear for his life, and see in this matter a disinformation campaign by the Russian authorities.
Missing since 15 January 2000, Andrei Babitsky was arrested on 18 January 2000 by federal forces at Staraïa Sounja, just outside of Grozny. Placed in temporary detention in the Naourskaïa district (in northern Chechnya), the journalist was accused of "participation in an armed band", punishable by a prison sentence of six months to five years.
State Prosecutor Vladimir Oustinov went to Chechnya on 2 February to find out more on the matter. In early January, the journalist's residence in Moscow was searched and many notes and work documents concerning Chechnya were seized by authorities. Andrei Babitsky is known for his critical coverage of the federal forces' actions in the independent republic.