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Gunmen Kidnap Up To 15 In Russia's Ingushetia

NAZRAN, Russia (Reuters) -- Armed men drove into Russia's Ingushetia region and abducted up to 15 people including policemen from a checkpoint and a slot-machine parlor, police and witnesses have said.

Witnesses said the gunmen, dressed in camouflage, entered Ingushetia from neighboring Chechnya late on October 23 and presented themselves as police officers. Chechen authorities said they had nothing to do with the raid.

Islamist groups fighting an insurgency in Ingushetia against Moscow's rule frequently target gambling halls and shops selling alcohol, saying they contravene Islam.

The Kremlin has been struggling for decades to suppress armed rebellions in the North Caucasus. Chechnya, the scene of two wars, has been largely quelled but the violence has shifted to Ingushetia, where gun battles and ambushes are common.

An Ingushetian police officer, who did not want to give his name, told Reuters the attackers drove to a checkpoint on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia at about 11 p.m. on October 23.

They disarmed the guards and took at least one Ingushetian policeman hostage, the officer said. He said they claimed to be Chechen police but did not present any documents to prove this.

They then headed to the Ingush village of Ordzhonikidzevskaya, about 1.5 kilometers away, where they went into a slot-machine hall and kidnapped more people, the officer said.

"At this stage the investigation cannot give the precise number of those kidnapped. We still believe their number is between 10 and 15," the policeman said.

"It is certain that there are several policemen among them, and their life is in danger."

Chechnya Denies Involvement

Some witnesses told Reuters they believed the gunmen fled with their hostages in several cars in the direction of Chechnya but others said they had driven deeper into Ingushetia.

Chechen authorities denied involvement.

"The Chechen Republic's Interior Ministry units have nothing to do with this incident and we have nothing to say in this respect," a Chechen Interior Ministry spokesman said.

A duty officer at a Chechen police station at the Ingushetian border said, "not a single security unit entered or left Chechnya last night".

Attacks on Russian federal troops and Ingushetian police are common and are routinely blamed on Islamist militants. Human rights groups say widespread poverty and heavy-handed security operations push many young men to join the insurgents.

Local people said Islamist militants had targeted the slot-machine parlor in Ordzhonikidzevskaya before, trying to set it on fire and shooting at it on several occasions.

They said the owner had received written warnings, saying he was spreading vice and dissipation.

"Gambling is banned by Islam," said Murad, a policeman aged 29. "I do not support militants, but I am against young men whiling away their time in this place cursed by God. That place is always filthy, smoke-filled, and stinks of alcohol.

"They would have done better to spend this money on their children or their households."