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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Suspicions Snowball In Swap of Babitsky

The Soldiers' Mothers Committee said Tuesday it has been unable to locate the two paratroopers shown going free in exchange for Radio Liberty correspondent Andrei Babitsky, as doubts continued to grow about the government's version of the reported exchange.

Journalists and other observers said they have reason to suspect the government staged the videotaped swap last Thursday, and were worried about the safety of Babitsky, who has not been heard from since.

Radio Liberty said acting President Vladimir Putin was "directly responsible" for their war correspondent's fate.

"We know that Vladimir Putin was aware of all the events and knew what would happen. All this talk about him being informed post factum is an attempt to save face. He, of course, knew, watched and sanctioned" the handling of Babitsky, the chief of the station's Moscow bureau, Savik Shuster, told a news conference Tuesday.

Shuster said he believes it likely that his colleague, who has angered Russian generals with what they see as his anti-Russian coverage of the Chechnya war for the U.S.-funded radio station, remains in the hands of one of the federal power agencies.

"We hope that he is still alive" and will be released sooner or later, Shuster said in an interview Tuesday night.

Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo told reporters in Chechnya on Tuesday that Babitsky is alive and in the custody of Chechen rebels.

Press Minister Mikhail Lesin added that radio exchanges intercepted between Chechen field commanders prove that "nothing has happened" to Babitsky. Lesin said Chechen rebels have denied that they have Babitsky in order to play a "game." He would not elaborate.

Shuster said that had Babitsky been handed over to Chechen field commanders, he would have called either the Moscow bureau of his radio station or his wife, Lyudmila Babitskaya.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov personally called Radio Liberty's Prague headquarters over the weekend to say his fighters do not have Babitsky. Maskhadov and other Chechen leaders have denied that Babitsky was handed over to them.

They have said they do not know any field commander by the name of Said Usa Khodzhayev, who according to the Kremlin's Chechnya spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, initiated the exchange.

In another sign that Babitsky's fate may still depend on federal authorities, State Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin told the Ekho Moskvy radio station that the firing of Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Kolesnikov on Tuesday has "diminished the chances that we will see Babitsky again." Lukin said the Kremlin might have chosen Kolesnikov to take the fall for the much criticized handling of Babitsky's case. He failed to elaborate.

The exchange was first announced Thursday by Yastrzhembsky, who said Babitsky had been swapped that afternoon for three Russian paratroopers with the names Dmitriyev, Vasilyev and Nikolai Zavarzin.

The first doubts about the government's version were raised when Yastrzhembsky quickly adjusted his story to say Zavarzin had been freed by his own comrades and was not part of the exchange.

The situation was clouded further Tuesday when the well-connected Soldiers' Mothers Committee said it has been unable to find out anything about either Vasilyev or Dmitriyev.

Committee spokeswoman Valentina Melnikova said she managed to wrestle from the military an identification number for the two soldiers' unit but has failed so far to locate it. "It looks like a unit with such a number doesn't exist at all," she said Tuesday in a telephone interview.

Melnikova said it usually takes her committee only a few days to locate soldiers once they are freed from Chechen captivity. "All this makes me wonder whether Babitsky has been exchanged at all," she said.

According to Melnikova, the presidential committee that searches for soldiers missing in action also has no information on Vasilyev or Dmitriyev.

Doubts about Babitsky's fate have snowballed in the past few days with questions arising about the plausibility of the exchange taped by an officer of the Federal Security Service, or FSB. The video tape, broadcast repeatedly on television, showed Babitsky taken away by a masked man on a country road as two Russian soldiers walked toward the camera to be welcomed by a group of men in camouflage.

Several factors called into question whether Babitsky was in fact handed over to Chechen rebels:

-The site of the exchange was identified as a crossroads between Shali and Argun, which is well inside territory that Russian troops claim to control, making it difficult for Chechen rebels to escape after the exchange.

-Chechen rebels rarely wear masks, whereas the man who met Babitsky had on a green balaclava.

-Chechens embrace their comrades and do not grab them by the arm as the masked man did on the tape, indicating he wanted to make sure Babitsky didn't try to flee.

-The FSB officer who shot the video only briefly focused on the masked man and did not even try to film the Chechen rebels' vehicles before pointing his camera at the Russian soldiers, whereas any officer of a secret service would not miss an opportunity to film as much of the rebels as possible.

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he believes the exchange was staged and Babitsky remains in the custody of one of Russia's power agencies.

Another advocate of Russian journalists' rights, Naum Nim, who runs a web site called Dosye na Tsenzuru, or Dossier on Censorship, issued a statement Monday saying that one of his "reliable sources" says the exchange was staged and that Babitsky was simply handed over from one Russian secret service to another.

Initially, none of Russia's power agencies were willing to claim responsibility for the controversial exchange. It was only Tuesday that Interior Minister Rushailo acknowledged that his subordinates participated in the swap. He said it was sanctioned by the Prosecutor General's Office.

The prosecutor's office has opened a case against Babitsky and charged him with participation in Chechnya's "illegal armed formations," but has not admitted to sanctioning the reporter's exchange.

Only hours before the exchange, the prosecutor's office announced it was releasing Babitsky from a detention facility in Chechnya on condition he return to Moscow to be interrogated. Adding to the confusion, the prosecutor's office said Monday it would declare a nationwide manhunt for Babitsky if he fails to show up for interrogation.

Genri Reznik, a prominent defense lawyer who is representing Babitsky, said Tuesday that he would demand investigators account for their actions, especially between the journalist's arrest Jan. 16 in Grozny and the Interior Ministry's announcement Jan. 28 that it was holding him.

Reznik said he had asked the Prosecutor General's Office to give him access to all documents relating to the case and was expecting an answer Wednesday, Reuters reported. He also called for an independent commission to investigate the affair.