ALI-YURT, Russia (Reuters) - Petimat Tatriyeva was woken up one morning late last month by shouts and banging coming from the courtyard of her home.
She said it was a raid by Russian security forces. “About 15 men ... burst into the yard. One of them put a machine gun to my forehead. They said: ‘Where are the men? We’ll count to ten, then throw a grenade into the house’,” she told Reuters.
“When my 15-year-old son woke up, they threw themselves at him and beat him up,” she said. “They beat my husband on the kidneys and pressed their fingers into his eyes.”
Tatriyeva and her family live in Ingushetia, a mainly Muslim republic where for more than a decade Moscow’s forces have been fighting a low-level military campaign against armed Islamist militants linked to separatists in neighboring Chechnya.
But things are getting worse. In response to an escalation in attacks by insurgents, Moscow in late July sent in an additional 2,500 interior ministry troops, almost tripling the number of special forces in Ingushetia.
The escalation in violence shows that seven years after President Vladimir Putin came to power on a pledge to “wipe out” the insurgency in Russia’s North Caucasus region that includes Chechnya and Ingushetia, the rebels are not beaten.
In Chechnya, attacks have grown rare, but the problems appear to have shifted next door.
Some people in Ingushetia draw parallels with Chechnya eight years ago. Then, after a lull in the fighting that had already dragged on for six years, troops were sent back in to respond to a wave of rebel attacks. That unleashed a new war.
Now in Ingushetia, reports emerge almost daily of gun battles or ambushes on police vehicles.
This summer the insurgents have killed an aide to Murat Zyazikov, the region’s pro-Moscow president, and launched an audacious attack on an army base. Last week a Russian soldier was killed in an attack on a column of troops.
In July, the rebels murdered an ethnic Russia schoolteacher, Lyudmila Terekhina, and two of her children. A bomb went off in the cemetery as she was being buried, wounding several mourners.
In Ingushetia’s capital, Nazran, armored personnel carriers drive through the streets. Roadblocks check the documents of everyone entering the city.
Zyazikov, a former official with the Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor to the Soviet KGB, told reporters in Moscow on Wednesday it was a “routine precautionary operation.”
“There are no curfews, no punitive operations, no violations of anyone’s human rights, whatever anyone says. It has had no impact on the situation. There is no public outrage.”
However, residents who spoke to Reuters described a massive security operation underway, with regular and often violent raids on private homes by security forces looking for insurgents.
Homes in the village of Ali-Yurt were raided after shots were fired at government buildings in the nearby town of Magas.
“They brought my husband outside in just his underpants and they pressed me against the wall,” said Madina Martazanova. “They told him to lie on the ground, he didn’t want to and they forced him down and kicked him in the stomach.”
Nazran resident Idris Khamkhoyev said heavy-handed police operations were causing bitterness among the local population.
“They (Russian security forces) are rampant and answer to no one,” he said. “They are exacerbating the situation and we now fear a repetition of the Chechen problem.”
In Moscow, some observers see other parallels with Chechnya. The start of the second Chechen war helped the then little-known Putin show off his credentials as a tough politician. It was a factor in his victory in the 2000 presidential election.
Early next year, Russia is due to choose a new president because Putin, limited by the constitution to two consecutive terms, says he is stepping down.
Most observers say the Kremlin will encourage voters to back a Putin lieutenant as his replacement.
“In theory, the new deterioration of the situation in the Caucasus could be used to raise the profile of the successor, or as a pretext for calling off the election completely,” said New Times, a Russian-language news magazine.
Additional reporting by Oleg Shchedrov in Moscow