Russia's Medvedev replaces leader of Ingushetia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday replaced the leader of the violent southern region of Ingushetia, a man analysts said had aggravated an Islamist insurgency with his heavy-handed rule.

Fighting between security forces and rebels in Ingushetia has escalated this year, pushing the mainly Muslim region governed by Murat Zyazikov toward a civil war which could destabilize the entire north Caucasus.

Zyazikov, a former KGB-colonel handpicked by former Russian president Vladimir Putin to govern Ingushetia from 2002, was replaced by Yunis-Bek Yevkurov, a relatively unknown deputy chief of staff for the Volga-Urals military district, as Ingushetia’s interim president, the Kremlin announced.

Zyazikov denied earlier news agency reports that he had been sacked.

“I absolutely voluntarily resigned in order to transfer to other work,” he told the Interfax news agency. “I will work in Moscow.”

The Kremlin later released a statement stating Medvedev had accepted Zyazikov’s resignation request, but Moscow-based analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said the decision would have been taken by Putin, now Russia’s prime minister.

“Zyazikov was a Putin protege at the FSB (successor to the KGB) and this decision would have been made by Putin,” he said.

“The situation in Ingushetia is out of control,” Felgenhauer added, speaking of the region which borders Chechnya.

“The vast majority of the people are against Zyazikov and that has helped the underground Islamists. There is lots of personal anger against him.”

Residents of Ingushetia’s main city Nazran celebrated news of Zyazikov’s departure in the streets -- normally deserted at night.

Rusting cars sped over potholes and played loud music while groups of men danced and waved Ingushetia’s flag.

“I hope that everything in Ingushetia will stabilize now,” one policeman said. “Everything that is happening here is in the hands of Moscow.”

In a village outside Nazran a group of old men said they had been waiting for this moment for a long time.

“If we had a normal president we would have order here. There can be nobody as bad as Zyazikov,” one man said.

Kidnappings, murder and bomb attacks have become a part of everyday life in Ingushetia as security forces combat increasing rebel activity by clamping down on locals, heavy-handed tactics which people and human rights workers say has boosted support for the insurgents.

Human rights groups estimate that 93 people had been killed up to the end of August this year in Ingushetia, Russia’s smallest region with a population of 470,000.

Reporting by Ludmila Danilova; editing by Michael Roddy