Russia wants tourism halted at ski resort after attack

MOSCOW Tue Feb 22, 2011 5:33am EST

The damaged cabin of a cable car, which was blown up on Friday night by attackers, is seen near Mount Elbrus in Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia's North Caucasus region February 20, 2011. REUTERS/Yevgeny Kayudin

The damaged cabin of a cable car, which was blown up on Friday night by attackers, is seen near Mount Elbrus in Kabardino-Balkaria in Russia's North Caucasus region February 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Yevgeny Kayudin

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's envoy to its volatile North Caucasus region called on Monday for tourism to be halted at the country's most popular ski resort, where three Moscow tourists were gunned down by suspected Islamist rebels.

Security has been heightened since the Friday night shoot-out and a spate of other attacks including blowing up a cable-car and killing a policeman and an official in Kabardino-Balkaria in the mainly Muslim North Caucasus, where Moscow is failing to quell an Islamist insurgency.

"We must stop receiving tourists," state-run Itar-TASS cited Alexander Khloponin as telling officials in the town of Tyrnyauz on the main road leading to Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest peak, which was open for holiday-makers on Monday.

The violence has shocked ordinary Russians and officials alike who see Elbrus as an oasis of calm in the North Caucasus.

Russia's Tourism Union said the attack on a minibus of Moscow skiers by masked assailants was the first "terrorist" attack on tourists in Russia. It added that around 5,000 tourists visit Elbrus annually.

It also shows the insurgency is spreading from the traditional centres of Chechnya -- site of two separatist wars since 1994 -- and Dagestan to Kabardino-Balkaria, whose wooded peaks attract skiers and vacationers from Russia's heartland.

Rebels, who want an Islamic state in the North Caucasus separate from Russia, claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed 36 people at Moscow's busiest airport last month.

Khloponin called on travel companies to "not bring new groups ... explain to them this is in the name of security".

Appointed by President Dmitry Medvedev a year ago, the former Siberian business executive has since been accused by the Kremlin of doing too little to tame the North Caucasus, a region Moscow has labelled as its biggest political problem.

The Russian Tourism Union warned of a worsening situation if security measures are not significantly beefed up.

"This is a very dangerous situation. Kabardino-Balkaria has nothing but tourism," said spokeswoman Irina Tyurina.

"We call on authorities to save not only people, but also the region itself. Further attacks could ruin it," she said, adding that dozens of travel agencies have called the Union asking if it is safe to go.

Khloponin also scolded the provincial leadership, asking them: "I want to hear from you how this situation was able to happen in this republic of which we have always been so proud?" (Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman)

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