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Journalist at Forefront of Hostage Talks

An award-winning Russian journalist -- admired in Chechnya for her bold coverage of the war and disliked in the Kremlin for her independent reporting -- sought Friday to win the release of the 600 hostages being held in a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels.

Anna Politkovskaya, known for her pragmatism and humanity, took up the unusual task after several hours of talks earlier Friday when she and two companions persuaded the rebels to accept water deliveries. Supplies of bottled water in theater bars were running low.

After the first session with the rebels, Politkovskaya told reporters she was deeply shocked by what she saw inside the theater. "I was stunned to see the hostages' mood," she said. "They were preparing to die."

Politkovskaya writes for Novaya Gazeta and is widely respected in Chechnya for her tough reportage about abuse of civilians by federal troops. Russian authorities have tightly restricted journalists' access to the Chechen war, and most Russian media outlets have remained silent about allegations of military misdeeds.

After the hostage-takers said they wanted her to work as a mediator, Politkovskaya rushed to Moscow from Los Angeles, where she was on a tour after winning an award for courage in journalism, which was first given to her during a ceremony in New York City last week.

In a written statement, Politkovskaya thanked the International Women's Media Foundation for the award but said "it is an even greater honor for me to respond when destiny offers the opportunity to help people when a crisis strikes."

The rebels choice of her as a mediator was not surprising. More than any other Russian journalist, Politkovskaya has focused on the plight of Chechens caught in the Kremlin's nearly decade-long war against the rebels.

Unlike most other Russian reporters, Politkovskaya chronicled alleged killings, tortures and beatings by Russian forces -- reports that put her on a collision course with authorities.

She was arrested in February 2001 for not carrying proper documents in Chechnya. Later that year, after being threatened by a Russian officer whom she wrote about as having committed atrocities, she had to leave the country temporarily. She took refuge in Vienna, Austria, under protection of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Last February, Politkovskaya again clashed with authorities when she published evidence that several civilians were killed by Russian soldiers, contrary to an official statement that said they were killed by a land mine.

Russian authorities accused Politkovskaya of entering Chechnya without permission and threatened to take away her journalist's accreditation. Politkovskaya insisted she had not violated any rules.

In April, Politkovskaya received an award from the Overseas Press Club of America for the best reporting by a Russian journalist.