Prague, 9 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Simmering tensions in Russia's southern republic of Karachaevo-Cherkessia boiled over today when up to 5,000 demonstrators gathered on the central square of the capital Cherkessk to demand the resignation of the regional leadership.
Several hundred protesters pushed past riot police and forced their way into the government's building. The crowd smashed windows and furniture on its way to President Mustafa Batdyev's office.
RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Fatima Tlisova witnessed the incident. She sent the following report: "Almost all of offices in the White House [government building] have been ransacked. There is no information available yet about the whereabouts of President Batdyev. Almost every window in the building is broken. The surrounding area is filled with paper and broken furniture. Some government officials and ministers are watching the events from the streets adjacent to the White House."
A regional lawmaker told Russia's ITAR-TASS news agency that Batdyev had secretly left his office though a back door before the crowd entered. The agency quoted regional officials and policemen as saying Batdyev's refusal to meet with the protesters is probably what prompted the crowd to force its way into the building.
Reports say at least six people were wounded in clashes with riot police.
Law-enforcement agencies eventually succeeded in repelling most of the intruders, but a number of them refused to leave the building until Batdyev meets with them.
Today's turmoil follows the disappearance and suspected killing of regional lawmaker Rasul Bogatyrev and six business associates on 11 October.
Meanwhile, as Tlisova reported, the demonstration continued outside the government headquarters. "A rally of several thousand people continues on the square," she said. "The protesters' demands include the immediate resignation of the government, the president, and the heads of law-enforcement agencies, the military, and security services."
The local parliament was due to hold an emergency meeting later today.
Authorities say they don't plan to issue a state of emergency. They have notified Dmitrii Kozak, Russian presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, which includes the North Caucasus. It is unclear whether Kozak, who has his headquarters in Rostov-na-Donu, will go to Cherkessk.
Today's turmoil follows the disappearance and suspected killing of regional lawmaker Rasul Bogatyrev and six business associates. The seven men disappeared on 11 October.
Prosecutors yesterday said police had discovered seven dismembered and charred bodies in a mineshaft. They were believed to be the missing men.
But Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel today said the bodies have not yet been identified. "The bodies, the remains we've found, are heavily burned," he said. "Therefore we had to order a forensic investigation and a genetic and molecular identification process to identify them."
Regional and federal authorities at first attempted to hush up the disappearances. But faced with growing criticism, they eventually made some 15 arrests in the case, including many policemen. Among the detainees is Batdyev's son-in-law and regional cement magnate Ali Kaitov.
Prosecutors believe the seven men disappeared after meeting Kaitov at his home. They suspect the case is connected with a dispute over ownership of a local paint and varnish factory.
Kaitov denies any involvement in the affair. Yet, Russian law-enforcement agencies say they were able to locate the seven bodies yesterday only after information provided by two of Kaitov's bodyguards arrested over the weekend in St. Petersburg.