GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) -- Women in Russia's volatile Chechnya region say that police have targeted them with paintball pellets for not wearing head scarves, outraging rights activists.
The attacks highlight tension over efforts by Chechnya's firebrand Moscow-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, to enforce Muslim-inspired rules that in some cases violate Russia's constitution.
"A car carrying men in military uniform slowed down to approach us, one started filming on his mobile phone, and when they sped away we noticed paint all over our clothes," a woman in the Chechen capital Grozny said on condition of anonymity.
Several witnesses told Reuters that men in camouflage, which is worn by many Chechen police and security officers, had fired paintball guns at women from cars with tinted windows in multiple incidents this month. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which handles the police force, declined to comment about the reports.
Critics say that in return for keeping relative calm in Chechnya, site of two separatist wars with Moscow since the mid-1990s, the Kremlin allows Kadyrov to run it like a personal fiefdom and lets him impose his vision of Islam.
The ex-rebel turned Kremlin loyalist has amassed thousands of personal militia forces, who enforce his decrees such as periodic bans of alcohol and making women cover their heads in state buildings.
"This paintballing is an obvious Kadyrov rule just used to strengthen and tighten his grip over his tiny republic," prominent human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, told Reuters.
Russian rights group Memorial, citing witnesses, said in a statement it believed police were behind the attacks that fired the paint at women's faces and necks. Local media said there were around 12 such attacks.
This week, fliers from the self-proclaimed paintballers appeared in the city of Gudermes, site of Kadyrov's opulent residence, warning women that if they did not cover their heads the attackers will be "forced to resort to tougher measures."
"Isn't it nasty for you, while dressed defiantly, with your head uncovered, to hear various obscene 'compliments' and proposals? Think again!" it read, according to a copy posted on Internet news agency Caucasus Knot.
Police also declined to comment on the fliers, some of which were posted on state buildings and bus stops.