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Russian Region Tries New Tactics To Quell Insurgency

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov

Yunus-Bek Yevkurov

MAGAS, Russia (Reuters) -- The man chosen to rein in Russia's most violent insurgency has said he will tackle the root of the problem by stamping out the official corruption driving young men into the arms of Islamist rebels.

The approach set out by former paratroop commander Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the new leader of the Muslim Ingushetia region, marks a stark departure from the focus on tough security operations that critics said had been dragging the region into a civil war.

Ingushetia has overtaken its neighbor Chechnya as the epicenter of violence along Russia's turbulent southern flank, challenging the Kremlin's fragile rule and, security forces say, providing a foothold for global networks of Islamist militants.

"The root of the evil is in the dishonesty of local officials, and then the people start living in violation of the law because...[they] have no opportunity to earn by legal means," Yevkurov told reporters in his region's capital.

He said that since Russian President Dmitry Medvedev nominated him to run Ingushetia last October, prosecutors had launched 20 criminal cases against corrupt local officials and uncovered the theft of nearly $30 million in public money.

"If we make sure that this money reaches its target and works for the population then the crime rate will drop sharply," he said late on March 12.

"And then those who are leading criminal communities, including international terrorist organizations, for them it will be harder to recruit young people into their ranks, because they will no longer be able to point the finger at local officials and say 'Look, he steals your money'."

"Their main trump card today is 'Take a look at how local officials live and how common people do'," said Yevkurov, a 45-year-old career soldier with a boxer's flattened nose, who said he still does parachute jumps to keep in practice.

Poverty and Anger

Security experts say Ingushetia is fertile territory for Islamist militants, because it has over 50 percent unemployment and large, desperately poor communities of refugees from Chechnya and a sectarian conflict with neighbor North Ossetia.

Over 90 percent of Ingushetia's revenue comes in the form of subsidies from Moscow, but rights groups and the opposition allege most of this was being siphoned off by corrupt local officials under previous regional leader Murat Zyazikov.

Zyazikov blamed the West for fomenting violence in Ingushetia and said it was trying to destabilize Russia.

By the time he was removed last year, bomb attacks and shootouts between rebels and police were intensifying and local people were angry that the most prominent opposition leader had been shot in the head while in police custody.

Though there was a brief lull in the violence after he took office, Yevkurov still faces an immense security challenge.

The administrative capital, Magas, is ringed by paramilitary police in body armor and wielding Kalashnikov automatic rifles. Six police were killed in another part of the region this month when a bomb they were trying to defuse exploded.

Yevkurov said he had asked Moscow to allow him to increase police numbers by more than a half and that this year the local interior ministry's budget was up 40 percent.

He won Russia's highest military honor for leading an audacious 1999 operation to seize Pristina airport from under the noses of NATO forces advancing into Kosovo. But he said the job he has now is more daunting.

"One can lead a column to Pristina every day, but of course here in the republic, things are far more difficult," he said.

"The criminal situation is very complicated and when people ask me 'Do you have a war there?' I understand them, even my friends talk about it."