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Russian Activists, Western Journalists Attacked Trying To Enter Chechnya

The Committee to Prevent Torture said its workers and the journalists were still within Ingushetia on March 9 when they were attacked by about 20 men -- thought to have come from Chechnya -- who burned their minibus.

A Russian rights group says two Western journalists and two rights activists were hospitalized after masked men with knives and clubs attacked them as the group tried to enter Russia's Chechnya region from neighboring Ingushetia.

The Committee to Prevent Torture said its workers and the journalists were still within Ingushetia on March 9 when they were attacked by about 20 men -- thought to have come from Chechnya -- who burned their minibus.

Maria Persson Lofgren, a Moscow-based correspondent for Swedish Radio, and Norwegian reporter Oystein Windstad of the Oslo daily Ny Tid were hospitalized with injuries from the attack.

Another reporter with the group, Aleksandrina Yelagina of the Russian magazine The New Times, said the attackers called them "terrorists" and said they had "no business on our territory."

Swedish Radio gave a similar account.

"They shouted that we were terrorists, not journalists," Ginna Lindberg, head of the broadcaster's foreign news division, quoted Persson Lofgren as saying.

The Swedish broadcaster added that the attackers, described as a large group of young men armed with knives and clubs, had robbed the group before setting their vehicle ablaze.

Ny Tid, the Norwegian daily, said Windstad was also hospitalized along with rights activist Yekaterina Vanslova and the group's driver.

Pavel Chikov, a prominent Russian lawyer and rights advocate, wrote on Twitter that Windstad had teeth knocked out and suffered lacerations on his face and legs in the attack.

Dunja Mijatovic, the media-freedoms representative for the Organization for Security and Cooperation In Europe (OSCE), said on Twitter that reports of the attack were "troubling news."

The Russian news site Mediazona, whose reporter Yegor Skovoroda was with the group, said that prior to the attack their minibus was being followed by cars with license plates indicating the vehicles were from Chechnya.

Russia's Kommersant newspaper quoted Skovoroda as saying that the group was attacked near the settlement of Ordzhonikidzevskaya in Ingushetia, just west of the border with Chechnya.

Skovoroda posted a photograph of the group’s burning minibus on his Twitter account.

Chechnya's Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, and his supporters have publicly vilified the Committee to Prevent Torture's activists.

The organization was previously known as the Committee Against Torture, which was branded a "foreign agent" by the Russian government in 2015 because it received foreign funding for activities that authorities deemed "political" in nature.

It oversees a group of rights activists operating in Chechnya called the Joint Mobile Group.

After the attack, a lawyer for the Committee to Prevent Torture, Dmitry Utukin, posted surveillance video showing masked men bearing assault weapons that he said were trying to break into the Joint Mobile Group's headquarters in the town of Karabulak in Ingushetia.

Masked men last year destroyed the Joint Mobile Group's office in Chechnya's capital, Grozny, after it criticized Kadyrov's policy of burning down houses belonging to relatives of suspected Islamic militants.

Kadyrov has been accused of running Chechnya as if it were his own fiefdom, often disregarding Russian law in his pursuit to keep order in the restive North Caucasus republic.

The Kremlin has tolerated Kadyrov's alleged excesses because it relies on him to maintain order and suppress separatism in Chechnya, where Russia has fought two wars against rebels since 1994.

Russia's state-run TASS news agency quoted an unidentified law enforcement source in Ingushetia as saying that the rights activists and journalists were targeted by "about 20 attackers."

"They took away the mobile phones from [the journalists and human rights activists], set their Ford vehicle on fire, and drove away," TASS quoted the source as saying.

The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified law enforcement official as saying that a probe had been launched into the attack and that authorities were attempting to apprehend the assailants.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service, AFP, dpa, Dozhd TV, TASS, and Interfax
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