Attackers torch rights group's office in Chechen capital

Moscow (AFP) - Members at one of the last human rights groups active in Chechnya said Sunday that their office has been torched after they criticised the Kremlin-installed Chechen leader for calling for collective punishment against families of Islamist insurgents.

The attack on the Joint Mobile Group office in Grozny followed arson attacks reported against eight homes linked to insurgents' families in the wake of a surprise raid by rebel gunmen on the Chechen capital on December 4.

It is the latest chapter in years of harassment and murder of human rights activists and journalists investigating torture, kidnapping and war crimes in Chechnya, a tiny North Caucasus province where Russia has been fighting nationalist and Islamist rebels for 20 years.

"The damage (to the offices) is serious. All the equipment has been smashed. That was caused not by the fire but by vandalism," activist Dmitry Utukin told AFP on Sunday.

The December 4 attack on Grozny shocked Russian authorities who have repeatedly announced the crushing of the Chechen insurgency. Eleven of the fighters and 14 police died during a heavy battle before security forces regained control of several buildings, including a school and a media centre.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the authoritarian head of Chechnya's government, announced afterwards that relatives of any insurgent should be exiled and their homes destroyed.

After Kadyrov's statement on his popular Instagram account, at least eight houses belonging to people related to insurgents were burnt down, according to a statement by Memorial, another rights group, this week.

Now violence has spread to human rights activists.

Igor Kalyapin, head of the Moscow-based Committee Against Torture, wrote on Facebook that before the fire at the Joint Mobile Group's offices on Saturday, two men had tried to break in. Activists had also been followed by armed men, he said.

On Sunday, paramilitary police came to search the apartment where two members of the Joint Mobile Group were staying, Utukin said.

"It's not very clear what is happening because their phones have been confiscated," Utukin said. "Our lawyer is going there."

The group's other staff members "are in a safe place", Utukin said.

Tatiana Lokshina, the Russia programme director at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Facebook that the "Chechen leadership apparently decided to expel the Joint Mobile Group of human rights defenders from Chechnya -- along with relatives of insurgents."

Kalyapin has appealed to the Russian prosecutor-general to investigate Kadyrov's statement.

At a news conference in Moscow on Thursday to condemn the attacks, two young men threw eggs at him and Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial.

Kadyrov responded on Instagram last week that Kalyapin and other activists are defending "bandits" and suggested that Kalyapin was being used by "Western special services" to pay insurgents.

On Saturday at a mass rally in central Grozny, protesters held placards with slogans about the group and its leader such as "Kalyapin go home" and "Kadyrov, defend us from rights activists paid with dollars".

The rally against terrorism saw protesters holding portraits of 14 policemen killed in putting down this month's attack.

The Chechen interior ministry said 50,000 people took part in the rally. Kadyrov, who keeps a tight grip on many aspects of life in Chechnya, often stages well-attended rallies offering him support. Opposition demonstrations are rare.