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Police in Russia's Far East Corner 'Robin Hood' Gang, Killing Two

Police stand guard during the manhunt in the Primorsky region.
Police in Russia's Far East today appeared to bring to an end a days-long standoff with a local armed gang after officers stormed a house where the men were hiding, killing two and detaining others.

Police surrounded a building in the city of Ussuriysk in a siege that lasted three hours. Several policemen were injured in exchanges of fire with the suspects.

Hundreds of police officers and special forces this week launched a manhunt in the region, using helicopters and dogs to search nearby forests for the men.

The gang was wanted for a series of attacks on police, which earned them the nicknames "Russian Rambos" and "Robin Hoods" from local residents who saw their attacks as a protest against police corruption and abuse.

Ahead of today's siege, authorities said they had identified five men who allegedly carried out a series of recent attacks against local police, including a fatal attack on an officer in the village of Rakitnoye on May 27.

The men are also suspected of wounding three officers in two separate attacks near the town of Spassk in late May and early June, as well as burning a police station in the village of Varfolomeyevka in mid-May. Police said the gang was armed with automatic weapons.

On June 10, officials confirmed that one of the suspected gang members, 18-year-old Roman Savchenko, had been detained. Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service, Savchenko's father, Vladimir, suggested his son and the other gang members had previously been victims of police abuse.

"I want to appeal to the president and ask him to send a competent commission of Primorye to fix this mess and make sure that [the authorities] don't kill our children, but capture them and find out the truth about how it all started,” Vladimir Savchenko said. “I understand my son, but I also understand those other kids. All those who are on the run were beaten by policemen inside the police station because they did not want to take the blame for something they didn't do."

In addition to Savchenko, police had earlier identified Aleksandr Sladkikh, Andrei Sukhorada, and Aleksandr Kovtun as suspected members of the gang, which was reportedly led by Roman Muromtsev, a former army officer and veteran of federal military campaigns in Chechnya.

Primorsky regional police chief Andrei Nikolaev identified the two men killed in the siege as Sladkikh and Sukhorada. He added that Kovtun and a previously unnamed suspect, Vladimir Ilyutikov, had surrendered to police.

Along with Savchenko, Nikolaev said another previously unnamed suspect had been apprehended ahead of the raid. He did not mention Muromtsev.

He said the group was in possession of weapons, explosive devices, and "radical" literature.

It remains unclear what prompted the gang to launch its campaign against the police, although many residents are certain the attacks were a response to rampant police misconduct.

Anticorruption Vigilantes?

Comments posted by Internet users in the Primorsky region during the manhunt suggested that many local residents are siding with the gang members and not the police.

An unnamed law enforcement official told the Russian news agency Interfax that Muromtsev had written letters to the authorities, including to the Primorsky regional police department, demanding an end to police corruption, bribe-taking, and arbitrary police actions.

The source told Interfax that Muromtsev had changed his last named to "Prisyazhny" -- the Russian word for "juror" -- and became affiliated with others who felt victimized by the police.

Recent examples of police corruption have mounted in Russia, highlighted by the case of former officer Sergei Dymovksy, who gained nationwide attention in November after posting a YouTube video describing unbridled police corruption in his hometown of Novorossiisk.

Rights groups have long accused police officers of using torture and blackmail, falsifying evidence, and arresting innocent people to meet quotas.

Under pressure from rising discontent, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in February sacked high-ranking police officials and ordered a crackdown on corruption.

Lev Gudkov, director of the Moscow-based Levada Center, which tracks public opinion in Russia, told RFE/RL that the persistent problem of police misconduct could well have fueled the Primorsky attacks.

"What we've seen lately is the impossibility of institutionalizing rule of law and democratic procedures, and an increasingly brazen display of administrative arbitrariness on the part of the authorities," Gudkov said. "Protests are taking on a marginal and extremely aggressive form. This is a symptom of very serious trouble."

Gudkov added that such "symptoms" will likely continue to flare up, even as the majority of the Russian public remains prepared to tolerate police corruption.

"There is a certain opposition milieu that expects any act of protest, legal or illegal, to acquire a political dimension,” Gudkov said. “Among the public, however, there are no expectations of a rebellion, although there is a vague, diffused form of discontent with the situation."

Written by Richard Solash. With material from RFE/RL's Moscow bureau and agency reports.
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