Attackers torch rights group's office in Chechen capital

MOSCOW (AFP) - Attackers set alight the office of a prominent rights group in Chechnya after its activists criticised Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov for saying that relatives of Islamist insurgents would be punished.

The office of the Joint Mobile Group, one of the few human rights groups active in Chechnya, was set on fire late Saturday, its leader Igor Kalyapin wrote on Facebook.

"The office of the Joint Mobile Group is on fire in Grozny. None of the staff were injured," Kalyapin said.

Kalyapin said that earlier in the evening two men had tried to break into the office and that activists had been followed by armed men.

The apparent arson attack targeted rights activists who have taken a stand against Kadyrov, the North Caucasus region's ardently pro-Putin leader, after his chilling statement that relatives of insurgents will be punished for their crimes.

Chechnya saw a fresh outburst of violence this month as Islamist insurgents attacked Grozny on December 4, storming buildings including a school before 11 were killed in a massive security operation in which 14 police died.

Kadyrov responded by saying that relatives of Islamist insurgents involved in a bloody attack on Grozny this month would be banished and their homes destroyed.

After Kadyrov's statement on his popular Instagram account, at least eight houses belonging to people with family links to insurgents were burnt down, according to a statement by Memorial rights group this week.

Kalyapin had appealed to the Russian prosecutor-general to investigate Kadyrov's statement. At a news conference in Moscow on Thursday to condemn the attacks, two young men threw eggs at Kalyapin and Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial.

The Joint Mobile Group is the Chechnya-based branch of the Committee against Torture rights group, also led by Kalyapin.

Kadyrov furiously responded on Instagram last week that Kalyapin and other activists were defending "bandits" and suggested that Kalyapin had handed money to insurgents from "Western special services".

On Saturday at a mass rally in central Grozny, protesters held placards with slogans about the group and its leader such as "Kalyapin go home" and "Kadyrov, defend us from rights activists paid with dollars." The rally against "terrorism" saw protesters holding portraits of 14 policemen killed in putting down this month's attack.

The Chechen interior ministry said 50,000 people took part in the rally.