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Red Flags Hint At Brewing Civil War In Ingushetia

Russian troop at a checkpoint in Nazran
Ingushetia's interior minister narrowly escaped death this week when a suicide car bomber blew himself up just meters from Mussa Medov's motorcade, which was traveling outside the regional capital of Nazran.

The blast, which wounded three bystanders and a motorist, was the latest in a steady string of attacks plaguing this volatile North Caucasus republic.

Moscow has been struggling for years to contain an insurgency by Islamist militants who regularly kill officials in ambushes and bomb attacks.

Recently, Russia's armed conflict over Georgia's breakaway regions has compounded public frustration in Ingushetia and fanned ethnic tensions with its neighboring Russian republic, North Ossetia.

The violence in Ingushetia has reached such a pitch that many observers no longer shy away from describing it as a full-blown civil war.

"The Ingush people are enduring a calamity that perhaps no other people has endured. A real civil war is taking place here," Maksharip Aushev, a prominent opposition figure in Ingushetia, tells RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. "There are only 350,000 of us. Every day people are killed, every day bombs explode. Doesn't this qualify as a war?"

Bomb attacks, killings, and kidnappings have become part of daily life in this poor, chiefly Muslim republic west of Chechnya.

According to the Russian human rights group Memorial, violence between authorities and rebels in Ingushetia claimed at least 61 lives between January and August.

Causes And Effect

Russian officials pin the blame on armed Islamic groups, which they claim seek to overthrow Moscow's rule with foreign support.

But local residents and rights campaigners say that it's the heavy-handed methods of federal forces, combined with official corruption, ramping poverty, and a 75 percent unemployment rate, that are driving young men to take up arms.

Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov
Much of the anger is directed at Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, a former KGB general backed by the Kremlin. Last month, the owner of an opposition Internet news site was shot dead while in police custody, sparking street protests against Zyazikov.

Russia's brief war with Tbilisi over the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has only poured fuel on the fire.

Moscow's subsequent recognition of those two provinces could embolden rebels in Ingushetia.

In addition, ordinary citizens there and in other violence-plagued North Caucasus republics now blame Moscow for turning a blind eye to their woes while investing massive financial, military, and diplomatic resources to prop up Georgia's two separatist regions.

"Literally one day after the recognition of South Ossetia's independence, people in the Caucasus were already asking why the problems of one people were being solved in a matter of days, when the problems of others have been going on for almost 20 years," says Aleksei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "Everyone sees this in the Caucasus, and it's upsetting people."

Cross-Border Tension

The de facto violation of national borders by Russian forces during their military offensive in Georgia also sets a dangerous precedent in the North Caucasus, where borders between the republics are still bitterly disputed.

The conflict has already stoked deep-running tensions between Ingush and North Ossetians.

North Ossetians share strong ethnic ties with their South Ossetian neighbors -- the vast majority of South Ossetians who fled the hostilities in August took refuge in Russia's North Ossetia.

Several Ingush civil groups, including the republic's association of students, called this week on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to address the consequences of the 1992 Ingush-North Ossetian conflict.

Paramilitary from both sides had then fought over a disputed district, leaving hundreds of people dead and forcing thousands more from their homes.

Double Standards?

Ingush opposition leader Aushev says the republic's alternative legislature, founded by opposition politicians, is currently drafting a protest letter to the South Ossetian leadership.

"Seventy percent of our territory is occupied by Ossetians. We've been expelled and people from South Ossetia have been lodged in our houses and on our territory, although we, too, are Russian citizens," Aushev says.

The letter to South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity states that "the Ingush want their land back, just like South Ossetians wanted the land they took from others." The letter, Aushev says, will "demand that Ingush territory be vacated."

Analysts agree that Moscow must now quickly come up with a clear strategy to prevent Ingushetia from spinning further out of control.

"The military didn't go to South Ossetia at its own will -- it was a political decision, it was the political will of the Russian government," says Ruslan Kutayev, who heads the International Committee on Problems in North Caucasus. "I think the Russian government must show its political will in Ingushetia, too. If it doesn't, this conflict could end up creating a serious situation that could spread to neighboring regions."

RFE/RL's North Caucasus and Russian services contributed to this report