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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FSB Says Babitsky Alive, But Can't Say Where

The whereabouts of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky remained unknown and his colleagues continued to fear the worst despite claims by Russian officials Monday that the war correspondent was still alive.

The Federal Security Service released a tape last week that they said showed Babitsky being handed over to Chechens in exchange for two Russian soldiers on Thursday near the Chechen town of Argun.

But leaders of the Chechen rebels said they know nothing about the exchange or about Babitsky's whereabouts. "Had he been with us, we would have been able to guarantee his safety," Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov said in a telephone call to Radio Liberty over the weekend, station journalist Vladimir Dolin said.

Federal Security Service director Nikolai Patrushev told reporters Monday that his agency is certain Babitsky is alive. "I don't know where he is - that is beyond our department," Patrushev said. He would not elaborate.

The Kremlin's Chechnya spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, told reporters that Patrushev's claim is based on solid evidence. Yastrzhembsky said he also is unaware of Babitsky's whereabouts, but is "very interested" in finding out.

Meanwhile, the Prosecutor General's Office announced it will issue an arrest warrant for Babitsky if he doesn't show up for interrogation.

Radio Liberty editors and journalists said they do not trust Patrushev's reassurances. "I know Andrei and I'm sure he would have already called us if [he had been] let go," editor Vladimir Baburin said. "I fear the worst."

Babitsky's colleagues believe officers of Russian power agencies either are still holding him or have killed him for his pro-Chechen coverage of the war. They see the filmed exchange as an attempt to shift the responsibility for Babitsky's safety to Chechen rebels.

Dolin, who recently returned from a trip to Chechnya, said he could confirm that the taped exchange happened no earlier than Wednesday. Babitsky was wearing a shirt that Dolin had passed to him Wednesday morning through the prosecutors holding him in northern Chechnya.

Dolin said he met people who told him Babitsky had been severely beaten during his detention.

One of them, a Chechen refugee, said he had heard a member of pro-Moscow Chechen leader Beslan Gantamirov's special police force boasting about beating Babitsky in Urus-Martan, Dolin said.

Yastrzhembsky said an army intelligence unit seized Babitsky when he was leaving the Chechen capital on Jan. 16 for failing to have military accreditation. He was later accused of collaborating with the Chechen militants.

Dolin said he was told that Babitsky was taken to Urus-Martan before being transferred to a Justice Ministry detention facility in Chernokozovo in the district of Naurvsky in northern Chechnya.

Dolin said he met the aunt of a man who was being held in the same facility, who quoted her nephew as saying that Babitsky was beaten repeatedly and forced to sing loudly for long periods of time.

Dolin went to the settlement last Wednesday morning and met with the head of the Naursky district prosecutor's office, Vitaly Tkachev, who confirmed that Babitsky was being held in Chernokozovo.

The prosecutor refused to let Dolin see Babitsky but agreed to have warm clothes, including the shirt, passed to him. However, when Dolin showed up later the same day with food for Babitsky, Tkachev said he had been ordered to hand him over to another government agency. He refused to identify the officials.

Neither the Justice Ministry nor any other law-enforcement agency has claimed responsibility for the controversial exchange, which has drawn strong criticism from human rights groups and liberal parties, such as Yabloko.

However, Yastrzhembsky said Monday that the exchange had been sanctioned by the Prosecutor General's Office and the Interior Ministry.

An official at the North Caucasus directorate of the prosecutor's office said in a telephone interview Monday that Babitsky was released on condition that he reports to investigators. The official said his agency has found more evidence of Babitsky's involvement in the activities of Chechen rebels, but would not elaborate.

The liberal Yabloko party issued a statement Monday condemning the exchange of Babitsky even if it had been carried out with his consent, as Yastrzhembsky has said.

"You cannot exchange one citizen of your country for another. A dangerous precedent has been set," the Yabloko statement said.