MOSCOW (Reuters) - Techno and rock music blared away as the bare-chested Russian policeman lay on his back on a pile of broken glass and nails. A colleague dropped three daggers, point down, on his stomach and trampled on his chest.
Russia’s special police, the OMON, were showing what they are made of.
Kremlin critics and Western governments accused them of using excessive force to break up opposition protests last month.
But the message they were sending on Thursday was they were ready to take on any troublemakers in a year when more protests are likely as Russia prepares to elect a new president.
“This is a warning,” said an OMON colonel who called himself Vladimir Antonovich as he watched three policemen smash flaming bricks with their bare fists.
“We want to show off what we can do.”
Last month foreign embassies and the EU said the OMON was too heavy-handed when it used batons to break up anti-Kremlin protests, called “March of the Dissenters,” in Moscow and St Petersburg, and detained journalists.
“The police were provoked in St Petersburg,” Antonovich, the colonel, said, dressed in the OMON’s urban camouflage uniform. “What does the March of the Dissenters need? It needs media coverage and they provoked the police into a reaction.”
Crowd control is not the OMON’s only role. Equipped with machine guns and armored vehicles, they patrol Russia’s volatile Chechnya region and are trained to rescue hostages.
At a media event to which foreign journalists had been invited for the first time, the OMON showed off textbook crowd control techniques.
Wearing crash helmets and body armor and carrying shields the police swung their batons in unison and marched forward one step at a time.
Opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who say he has trampled on democracy, have organized several protests.
The authorities have mainly banned these marches or allowed watered-down versions and several times in the last few months protesters and police have clashed. An investigation has yet to judge if the police used excessive force.
In the sprawling, wooded base, a 1-1/2 hour drive from central Moscow the police reveled in showing their muscle.
Unarmed police karate-kicked and punched “criminals” armed with knives, pistols and machineguns.
They broke planks of wood over each others’ backs, smashed glass jars filled with water with their bare hands, fired magazines of ammunition into the air and demonstrated various ways to break an aggressor’s legs, arms and neck.
Other displays showed off the latest patrol techniques in Chechnya, hostage rescue and the OMON’s weapons from sniper rifles to pistols.
Later, in a newly redecorated gymnasium, Russia’s Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Sukhodolsky expounded the importance of the OMON to ensure peace and stability in Russia.
He said there are 20,000 OMON police across the country and that last year 38 died on active service.
Behind him hung the Moscow OMON division’s badge — bearing the powerful bull-like bison — and its motto: “Special forces know no mercy and never ask for it. That is how it was, how it is and how it will be.”