(Adds Ingush president’s visit to the Kremlin)
NAZRAN, Russia, Jan 28 (Reuters) - A new president in Russia’s mainly Muslim Ingushetia region has taken the heat out of a simmering rebellion by restoring some trust in the regional authorities. Although violence still scars Ingushetia, residents say it has decreased since Yunus-Bek Yevkurov replaced former secret police officer Murat Zyazikov in October.
People sang and danced in the streets when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev dismissed Zyazikov, who had angered many by failing to curb heavy-handed raids by the security forces against the rebels in which civilians were often detained.
The hatred had fuelled support for attacks against the authorities by Islamist fighters pursuing a separatist rebellion, violence which analysts said threatened the Kremlin’s authority in the north Caucasus.
"Hatred of Zyazikov had fed the insurgency," said Pavel Baev, an analyst at the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute.
"But now that this hatred has been taken away, support for the rebels is likely to suffer."
Russia’s government worries that insurgency in Ingushetia will spread across the north Caucasus, attracting al Qaeda operatives and triggering a repeat of the bomb attacks and hostage-takings that rocked Moscow and other cities in the past.
With a population of about 470,000 living in an area around twice the size of Luxembourg, Ingushetia is one of Russia’s smallest and poorest regions. It neighbours Chechnya, where Russian forces fought a decade-long rebellion.
Now Yevkurov, a former paratroop commander, appears to have support from local leaders — businessmen, politicians and clan chiefs — who had led opposition to Zyazikov.
Whether that backing lasts depends on his ability to control the excesses of the security forces — a problem because of the web of agencies with different paymasters and commanders.
These include government ministries and directorates such as the Defence Ministry and the FSB state security service, as well as Ingushetia’s own Interior Ministry and police.
Human rights groups have also accused renegade security agents of kidnapping and torturing some people, although the authorities deny it is a systematic practice.
"There is no single security force operating in the north Caucasus, therefore no single thread of control," said Baev.
Figures from the Memorial human rights office in Nazran, Ingushetia’s biggest town, showed 40 members of the public, 75 security personnel, 51 rebels and five officials were killed last year — almost twice as many as in 2007.
But people in Nazran said violence had fallen since Yevkurov took over.
"In the first two months he was barely able to make a difference but I now see he is genuinely trying to make this a better republic," 49-year-old Magomed-Salakh Goigov said of Yevkurov.
A doctor at Nazran’s hospital said he and his colleagues were seeing less evidence of violence now.
"It was worse when Zyazikov was in power," said Ilyez Darsigov, a 35-year-old doctor. "Almost every day we took in people with injuries, or dead people."
In a public show of support for Yevkurov, Medvedev visited Ingushetia on Jan. 20 and pledged to spend billions of roubles improving the region. This is important for Yevkurov because he needs cash to build up his powers of patronage.
And on Wednesday Medvedev met Yevkurov again, this time in the Kremlin — further underlining the importance he places on stabilising Ingushetia.
He told Yevkurov to retain the support of local people by repairing basic services such as water and electricity supplies and ordered him to bolster security against rebel attacks.
The Islamist militants continue to launch gun and bomb attacks against government ministers, police and army convoys. These fighters are separatists who fought against the Russians in Chechnya before being pushed into Ingushetia a few years ago. On the day of Medvedev’s visit to Ingushetia, gunmen shot and wounded a local official.
Many of the attacks had been attributed to people who do not share the militants’ ideology but took up arms themselves, or helped the rebels, because they had suffered at the hands of security forces. The threat from this quarter has now subsided.
Russian human rights activist Lyudmila Alexeyeva said she was impressed after meeting Yevkurov in Ingushetia in December.
There were only two kidnappings in Ingushetia during Yevkurov’s first few weeks in power and he traced these crimes to security service personnel and prosecuted them in an unusual show of accountability, she said.
"It’s rare for me to have a good impression from a Russian bureaucrat," she said. "But he is a normal person and wants to do his best." (Additional reporting and writing by James Kilner in Moscow; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and Timothy Heritage)