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Violence spreads in Russian Caucasus region after police kill journalist

Violence is escalating in the Russian region of Ingushetia in the north Caucasus after the apparent murder while in police custody of a leading opposition figure and critic of the Kremlin.

Police used batons yesterday to disperse protests which erupted after the death of Magomed Yevloyev, the owner of a website critical of the Ingush government. He was picked up by a police car on Sunday when he arrived at the local airport. Soon afterwards his body was dumped on the road near a hospital with a bullet wound to the head. He died in hospital.

Mr Yevloyev is the best-known Russian journalist to be murdered since the investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya was shot dead in Moscow in October 2006. In July, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists described Ingushetia "as a lawless zone where enemies of the press can attack journalists with impunity".

The Ingush interior ministry claimed the death had been provoked by Mr Yevloyev's own actions: "Yevloyev tried to seize a policeman's gun when he was being led to a vehicle. A sporadic bullet was fired. Yevloyev was injured in the head and died in hospital."

But Magomed Mutsolgov, from the human rights group Mashr, said the journalist was "deliberately and cynically" murdered by the Ingush authorities because his website had exposed corruption, kidnappings, disappearances and killings in the tiny Muslim republic. "This was no accidental shot," said Mr Mutsolgov.

The killing immediately created a backlash against the local authorities, who are very much under the control of Moscow. It is likely to be widely publicised because international attention is already focused on the Caucasus as a result of the crisis in Georgia.

There had already been a growing number of assassinations and guerrilla raids against Ingush police and security forces over the past year. organised a petition to have the unpopular President Murat Zyazikov replaced by his highly regarded predecessor, Ruslan Aushev.

Mr Yevloyev's death was followed by a protest at his funeral on Monday which was attended by 1,200 people, said Mr Mutsolgov. Some carried banners calling for the dismissal of President Zyazikov. In a bid to continue the protest, some 50 men slept overnight in the main square of Nazran, the main city of Ingushetia. The police arrived at 5.30am to disperse the protesters. Police and military vehicles were used to block access to the square. A police spokesman denied that force had been used against the protesters and said they had left quietly. "We didn't even have to make any arrests," he said.

Ever since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Ingushetia has been on the edge of the extreme violence which led to two bloody wars in Chechnya where the capital, Grozny, was destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed. But hitherto the fighting has only periodically spilled over into Ingushetia which, until 1992, was part of the same autonomous republic inside the Soviet Union as Chechnya. Chechens and Ingush were both deported to central Asia by Stalin during the Second World War.

But, with Mr Aushev, a former Soviet general, as President between 1993 and 2001 Ingushetia was able to keep out of the war in Chechnya despite being engulfed by some 240,000 Chechen refugees. An uneasy balance of power was struck between the Russian army, the FSB Russian security service and local security men.

President Zyazikov has been more dependent on Moscow than his predecessor and the results of recent elections are widely believed to have been falsified. Ingushetia remains very poor with 88 per cent of the annual budget provided by Moscow and with 67 per cent of its people unemployed.

Insurgency against the government has increased sharply this year. By August, one local policeman or FSB member was being killed or wounded every day. On 4 August, insurgent fighters entered the city of Nazran and attacked the houses of the Prime Minister and the chief imam with assault rifles and grenade launchers. Russian troops aided local police to try to repel the rebels.

The best source of information on these attacks was Mr Yevloyev's website, which may explain why he was killed.

An impoverished nation ruled by a kleptocracy

Ingushetia used to be one of the more stable parts of the north Caucasus. Foreign journalists would sally forth from Nazran, the capital, into Chechnya to cover two savage wars and sighed with relief when they were back on Ingush territory. With a population of 480,000, it has few natural resources and for years strained to feed 240,000 Chechen refugees.

The government headquarters are in a strange fortress called Magas, the official capital, on the outskirts of Nazran. Its buildings are full of grandiose and empty halls but it is considerably better protected than anywhere else in Ingushetia.

As in much of the Caucasus, the government is widely regarded by its people as a kleptocracy kept in power by military force, electoral fraud and Russian support. The Ingush are Sunni Muslims, but hitherto have not shown great sympathy for militant Islam. They have a long-running feud with the neighbouring North Ossetians whom they accuse of taking part of their territory when they were deported to central Asia by Stalin.

But Ingushetia is unlikely to become a running sore for the Russians as South Ossetia became for Georgia. Unlike the Chechens, the Ingush have never sought independence. Local anger is mostly directed against the President, Murat Zyazikov, not Russia. The opposition wants to replace him with the former president Ruslan Aushev who has remained largely silent since he left office in 2001.

Recently he made veiled criticism of the present Ingush government in a Russian magazine called Dosh, the distribution of which was promptly banned in Ingushetia by President Zyazikov. His overreaction to this and any other sign of opposition underlines his political weakness.

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