Efforts to save the Khimki forest
suffered a major blow when activists camped out to prevent its destruction were attacked by masked assailants and later arrested.
Two journalists were also detained, including a RFE/RL correspondent.
Environmental activists had set up a round-the-clock watch last week in the historic oak forest north of Moscow, part of which is slated to be replaced by an $8 billion highway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Just after 5 a.m. on July 23, about 100 masked men appeared at the ecologists' camp, threatening to "kill" them. The men, who wore white T-shirts wrapped around their heads, tore down the activists' banners and removed the tents.
At the same time, loggers started felling trees close to the camp.
Several activists were injured while attempting to stop the felling, including a woman who was reportedly severely beaten.
The activists swiftly called the police. Yevgenya Chirikova, who spearheads the campaign against Khimki's deforestation, said the police took a whole hour to arrive.
Protesters were attacked by men with T-shirts covering their faces. (photo courtesy of ecmo.ru)
"When the police arrived, the men had already reached our camp and were threatening to beat us. I explained that I was the mother of two young children, that I feared for my life and my safety, that dozens of people came here and I was afraid they would hurt me," Chirikova said.
"I asked the police officers to stay and check their documents, but they refused and tried to leave. I had no other choice than to lie under their vehicle's wheels."Police Arrest Journalists
About 40 riot police then turned up at the camp and detained a dozen activists, including Chirikova.
RFE/RL cameraman Yury Timofeyev and "Novaya gazeta" reporter Elena Kostyuchenko were also detained.
"Unidentified people, protected by police officers in uniform, tried to stop me from filming. They grabbed my camera and tried to switch it off," Timofeyev said.
"I was detained while filming how these people demolished the ecologists' camp. I was brought to the police station in Khimki and accused of obstructing traffic."
Timofeyev said he and the other people detained spent almost an hour locked in a van before being brought to the police station. He said the police refused to open the van's window despite the scorching heat.
An ambulance was later called for "Novaya gazeta" reporter Kostyuchenko, who fell ill at the police station. Doctors diagnosed her with a neck injury sustained during her arrest.
The detained activists and journalists were taken before a court, where they faced action for allegedly resisting arrest and obstructing traffic. Most of them have been cleared and all have been released.
The prominent environmental group Greenpeace has strongly condemned the arrests, accusing police of "siding with corrupt officials and their hired bandits."
"We insist that the felling taking place at the Khimki forest is illegal, since neither the activists nor the police were shown logging permits," the group's Mikhail Krendlin told RFE/RL.
"But instead of stopping the illegal, at times extremist actions of certain individuals, the police brutally arrested the forest's defenders, injuring some of them," Krendlin added. "Now they are trying to shift all the blame on the activists."
The Russian Union of Journalists also issued an angry statement calling for police to be prosecuted for illegally detaining reporters.
The Public Chamber, a state oversight body, said it was preparing an appeal urging the authorities to halt logging at the Khimki forest until all legal disputes surrounding the highway project are cleared up.Dwindling Green Belt
Ecologists and Khimki residents have been fighting plans to build the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway for years, saying it will have a devastating effect on the local environment.
Russian authorities say the proposed route through Khimki will help ease traffic congestion by offering an alternative road to the airport.
But critics say building the highway in Khimki would deprive Moscow of yet another chunk of its fast-dwindling green belt, designed in Soviet times to contain pollution and preserve wildlife.
Russia's Supreme Court gave the project the green light in April.written by Claire Bigg in Prague with material from RFE/RL's Russian Service