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Page last updated at 00:37 GMT, Sunday, 23 November 2008

Ingushetia in 'state of civil war'

By Richard Galpin
BBC News, Moscow

The Presidential building of Ingushetia
Russia has sent thousands of soldiers to strengthen security in Ingushetia

Human rights activists and opposition politicians in Russia's southern republic of Ingushetia have told the BBC that the predominantly Muslim region is now in a state of civil war.

It is reported that more than 800 people have been killed in an escalating conflict which originally spilt over from neighbouring Chechnya six years ago.

Ingushetia is a tiny region with a total population of just 300,000.

"A lot of my human rights colleagues and politicians say it is now a civil war and I agree with that," Magomed Mutsolgov, director of the Ingush Human Rights organisation Mashr, says.

"In my opinion it is a war between the security forces and the local population. Many members of the security forces consider themselves above the law and the population outside the law," he adds.

A low-level insurgency involving Muslim fighters escalated dramatically last year with a surge of attacks on the security forces and also on people who have moved into the region from other parts of Russia.

"From July or August last year there have been three or four attacks every week," Tanya Lokshina, of Human Rights Watch, says. She recently compiled a major report on Ingushetia.

"There are a few hundred insurgents in total… who are Jihadists fighting to establish a Caliphate in the (Caucasus) region."

Hamzat Gardanov
Hamzat Gardanov was shot dead in August

Moscow's response has been heavy-handed, with reports that an extra 2,500 troops from outside Ingushetia were deployed in the republic last year to help crush what Russia sees as a Muslim rebellion.

But this has only added fuel to the fire which is driving ever more young Ingush men into the arms of the rebels.

'Destroying everything'

The military and other security services including the FSB, the successor to the KGB, have long stood accused of committing gross human rights violations against the Ingush population - such as kidnapping and torture.

But last year, according to Human Rights Watch, the security forces were also responsible for a wave of extra-judicial killings.

Human Rights Watch says 40 people were killed without any proof they had anything to do with the insurgency.

Young men of 18 and 19 want to avenge these killings - for some it's a Jihad against Russia
Jamaldin Gardanov

On a dirt track on the outskirts of the main town, Nazran, Jamaldin Gardanov showed me the spot where he says his brother Hamzat was shot through the head by a Russian soldier in August.

He told me Hamzat had been driving home with his cousin after buying some paint in town.

"My brother and his cousin were passing a checkpoint set up after a policeman was killed on the main road," he said.

"The car turned down here (into the dirt track) and the security forces opened fire with intent to kill.

Jamaldin Gardanov with brother's children
Jamaldin Gardanov with some of the children of his dead brothers

"My brother died on the spot and his cousin ran off through the fields. The police then fired on the fields for two hours destroying everything.

"I'm 36-years-old and far from being a fighter, but young men of 18 and 19 want to avenge these killings. For some it's a Jihad against Russia," he said.

Back at Jamaldin's house we met Hamzat's widow and her two children. Jamaldin is now looking after them all.

Over lunch he showed me photographs of a raid on his house by Russian soldiers at the beginning of this month.

One of the pictures shows a young child standing outside the house in front of an armoured personnel carrier.

"My wife and children were standing outside for three hours as they searched our house," he said.

"They claim we are all Wahhabis", he said, "so we are being persecuted."

Shocking video

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Video appears to show Russian soldiers pulling bodies from a car

Jamaldin does come from a family of theologians and is deeply religious, but he strongly denies any links to radical Islam.

"The security forces have created the threat of Wahhabism as a cover for what they are doing here," he said.

He then showed us some shocking clips of video stored on his mobile phone.

In the first we could see a close-up of a man's head covered in blood.

This was another of Jamaldin's brothers, 21-year-old Adam. Jamaldin says he was also shot dead by the security forces.

The widow of one of the brothers
The widow of one of the brothers

The second mobile phone video shows the incident, which happened in the centre of Nazran, in February last year.

It was filmed by someone inside the main administration building, looking down on the square where Adam and a friend had been sitting in a car.

The video shows what looks very much like a soldier pulling the bodies from the vehicle.

Jamaldin says the prosecutor told him off the record that his brother Adam was "absolutely clean", there was no reason for him to have been killed.

The family believes Adam may have been targeted simply because he was a devout Muslim who had studied in Egypt.

Torture victim

Later, in a safe location, we met up with another victim of the security forces' dirty war in Ingushetia.

23-year-old Tamerlan could barely get out of the car when he arrived at our meeting-point.

He had just been released after being detained for six days by the security forces in the northern town of Maglobek.

He had been picked up with three friends following the murder of a policeman in the town.

When we got inside, he pulled up his jumper to reveal a cluster of deep bruises and cuts around his lower back.

He said he was also badly bruised on his upper thighs and he had marks on his wrists.

Tamerlan showing his bruised back to camera
Tamerlan says he was tortured for 12 hours and lost consciousness

"They tortured me from six in the morning to six in the evening," he said.

"They put a sack over my head and beat me so badly I lost consciousness. They put sharp implements under my nails. I thought I was going to die, it was sadistic.

"They also tied my hands and feet together and hung me up - so I started to suffocate."

He says the security forces were trying to get him to confess to involvement in the policeman's murder but had to release him because he knew nothing about it.

He told me he had no connection with the rebels.

"Maybe they detained me because I'm a Muslim and pray at the Mosque and my wife wears the Hijab," he said.

According to the mainstream opposition leader Maksharip Aushev, this brutal treatment of the local population is not only swelling the ranks of the rebel fighters.

"People are coming to me all the time, saying let's vote for independence," he says.

"If we had a referendum, 80% of the population would vote to leave Russia," he adds.

In a sign of mounting panic back in Moscow, the Kremlin suddenly announced three weeks ago that the former KGB officer Murat Zyazikov, who had been in charge of Ingushetia since 2002, was being replaced.

The new man is a career soldier, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who made his name during the wars in Chechnya.

He turned down our request for an interview.

The most senior politician in the region who was prepared to speak to us was the chairman of the local parliament's security committee, Mukhtar Buzurtanov.

He said Yunus-Bek Yevkurov must bring the security forces under control and stop what he called their "illegal activities".

But he also accused the rebels of trying to destabilise Russia, saying they were part of a radical Islamic movement which had moved into Ingushetia after the wars in Chechnya.

He added that more than 50 soldiers had been killed so far this year.

Other senior officials in the local government have been quoted as saying they have to mount security operations to eliminate the rebels because of the threat they pose to Moscow's rule over the region.

The arrival of a new leader of Ingushetia who is a battle-hardened soldier and veteran of the Chechen conflict may sound ominous.

But the top opposition politician Maksharip Aushev holds out some hope that Yunus-Bek Yevkurov could improve the situation.

"The former leader Zyazikov was 100% to blame (for the situation). The first thing (new leader Yunus- Bek Yevkurov) did was to invite us to meet him and he said he plans to stop the human rights abuses and tackle corruption. At the moment we see no reason not to trust him."

So far there have not been any signs of change and the violence and abuses have continued.

"We will give [Mr Yevkurov] a maximum of three months," Mr Aushev says.

"We will support him if things change, if not it will go back to the situation as it was before."

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