Kondopoga Witnesses Disappear

A Chechen Ingush leader said Monday that police had forced two Azeri witnesses to leave the northwestern town of Kondopoga to prevent them from testifying on a brawl that sparked deadly inter-ethnic riots.

The two men are among the main witnesses in an investigation into a fight that broke out in a restaurant in Kondopoga last September between ethnic Russians and Chechens, triggering mass street disturbances.

The regional prosecutor's office dismissed the allegation made by Makhmet Matiyev, head of the local Chechen and Ingush society, saying it could not explain why the two men, identified only as Mamedov and Sadygov, did not show up at a Feb. 2 court hearing.

The unrest was one of the most prominent outbreaks of racial violence in the country. Two ethnic Russians were killed and much of the Chechen community had to flee the town near the Finnish border.

Matiyev said investigators were guilty of prejudice against ethnic minorities. Prosecutors have accused two ethnic Russians of starting the fight.

"Security authorities made [the Azeris] leave so that the truth is never found out," Matiyev said. "The investigation is one-sided. Only witnesses from one side are being called up, but from the other side there are no witnesses."

A spokeswoman for the prosecutors' office said there was no foundation in his claim. "Everything is fine," Tatyana Kordyukova said. "I cannot account for every person questioned and for reasons for their absence."

Matiyev said prejudice was still rife against Chechens after years of separatist violence in the Caucasus province and a string of extremist attacks across Russia, and suggested prosecutors sought to clear the ethnic Russian defendants.

Matiyev said police had removed CCTV footage that recorded the fight from the restaurant and had not returned it and that police had told the two Azeris to leave a few days after the brawl because they worked there without proper documents.