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Russia's Medvedev Orders Crackdown On Extremists

MOSCOW -- President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered a crackdown on extremist groups that he said were trying to exploit Russia's economic crisis by sowing instability.

Russian officials traditionally mean racist groups and radical religious and political organizations when speaking about "extremism."

"Extremist actions are especially dangerous in the current conditions," Russian news agencies quoted Medvedev as telling a meeting with top prosecutors on February 25. "In many instances they are directly linked to attempts to destabilize...our society."

"You have the right to ask courts to liquidate relevant public and religious organizations and suspend their activities pending a court decision," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

Medvedev said this month racist attacks were on the rise and were a threat to national security in Russia, whose economy has been hit hard by the global economic slowdown and the fall in the price of oil and other commodities.

But human rights activists and some opposition groups accuse the Kremlin of using tough new legislation on extremism as a pretext to clamp down on legitimate forms of dissent.

The Moscow-based rights group SOVA said at least 96 people were killed and more than 400 were wounded in racist attacks last year.

Millions of foreign workers, many from former Soviet republics in Central Asia, have poured into Russia in the past few years to take up construction and retail jobs.

But some 2 million people have lost their jobs in Russia in the last six months and at least 1 million more layoffs are expected in 2009.