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Russia4 March 2004

US journalist’s driver-guide held for past three weeks

Reporters Without Borders today condemned the detention for the past three weeks of Ruslan Khamzatovich Soltakhanov, who works as a driver and guide for journalists covering the war in Chechnya. He was arrested in North Ossetia on 13 February after working for three days for US journalist Rebecca Santana, from whom notes and material were confiscated by security agents on 12 February.

"This case shows yet again that the Russian authorities do everything possible to prevent the press from finding out what is really going on in Chechnya," the organisation said, adding that it feared Soltakhanov was being punished for helping journalists enter the troubled Caucasian republic.

Reporters Without Borders said it had told interim interior Rachid Nurgaliev of its deep concern and requested an explanation for Soltakhanov’s arrest. It also described the seizure of Santana’s notes and material as "unacceptable."

The Moscow correspondent for Cox Newspapers, a US chain, Santana quoted Soltakhanov’s wife as saying four or five men in plain-clothes came to their home on the morning of 13 February and took her husband away. The men, who did not identify themselves, returned in the afternoon and searched the house, taking papers. They also claimed to have found two grenades but Soltakhanov’s wife insisted there were no weapons in the house.

As Santana was returning to Moscow, she was detained on 12 February at Mineralnye Vody airport (northwest of Grozny) by agents of the FSB, the domestic security agency. They confiscated her camera, film, notes, two mobile phones and palmtop computer. These were returned to her the next day in Moscow by the foreign ministry’s press department, but her film had been developed.

The US embassy had announced on 11 February that Santana had been missing for three days. This false alert drew attention to her presence in Chechnya. "The FSB, the police and the Mozdok prosecutor’s office knew that I had worked with Mr. Soltakhanov," Santana said, stressing that she was "extremely concerned" about his fate. "I’m convinced he was arrested because he had worked with me," she added.

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