New York, September 2, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by reports that prominent Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was poisoned last night en route to Beslan, North Ossetia, where about 40 heavily armed fighters, reportedly of Chechen and Ingush origin, seized hostages at an elementary school yesterday.
In a separate incident this morning, Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for the U.S. government–funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), was prevented from flying from Vnukovo Airport to Mineralnye Vody—a town about 125 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of the Chechen capital, Grozny—from where he was to travel to Beslan, according to the independent Moscow-based radio Ekho Moskvy. It is unclear whether he has been released.
Politkovskaya, a correspondent with the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, is known for her investigative reports on human rights abuses committed by the Russian military in Chechnya and participated in the negotiations with armed Chechen rebels who took some 700 people hostage in a Moscow theater in late October 2002.
Politkovskaya was to take part in negotiations with the fighters in Beslan, according to local press reports. But yesterday at Vnukovo Airport in the capital, Moscow, she and other journalists were prevented from boarding a flight to Rostov-on-Don, from where they were to travel to Beslan. Yesterday evening, the captain of a different plane, also bound for Rostov-on-Don, recognized the journalist and personally welcomed her on board, the Moscow-based Web site Grani.Ru reported.
Immediately after landing at Rostov-on-Don, Politkovskaya felt sick, collapsed, and was taken to a local hospital, where doctors found she had been poisoned, Novaya Gazeta Editor-in-Chief Dmitry Muratov told CPJ. "We still don't know what substance Anna was poisoned with," said Muratov, who was with Politkovskaya in Rostov-on-Don this afternoon. Test results will be ready in three days, he said.
Muratov would not speculate about who might have poisoned the journalist but said that she had not eaten anything before the trip and only had a cup of tea on the plane. "It was clear that [Politkovskaya's] presence was unwanted in Beslan," he added.
Journalist detained at Moscow airport
Airport police first detained Babitsky this morning on suspicion of carrying explosives but released him after checking his luggage, said Ekho Moskvy. Then two young men "attached themselves" to Babitsky shortly after police released him and began harassing him, the station reported. As a result, officers detained the journalist again, this time because he was a "victim of hooliganism," said Ekho Moskvy.
While he was detained, RFE/RL interviewed the journalist on his cell phone. He told a correspondent that officials have ordered him to undergo a medical examination "for sustained bodily harm." But Babitsky said that he had not been injured.
In January 2000, Babitsky disappeared while on assignment in Grozny. After two weeks of denial and silence, officials in Moscow admitted that the reporter was being held by the Russian military. And after several more weeks of confusion and contradictory government reports, Babitsky was released on February 2, 2000. Russian authorities held him in an apparent effort to prevent him from reporting on the war in Chechnya.
"CPJ is extremely concerned about our colleagues Anna Politkovskaya and Andrei Babitsky," said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. "We urge Russian authorities to thoroughly investigate these incidents. Authorities must ensure that all journalists can report freely on the hostage situation in Beslan."