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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Killing Highlights Caucasus Tensions

NAZRAN, Southern Russia -- Darkness and a damp chill had settled on Sleptsovskaya when Sergeant Sergei Sysuyev and four privates rolled into town from Chechnya in an armored personnel carrier. The Ingush village was jammed with Chechen refugees.

Visibly drunk, the soldiers approached a food kiosk and demanded vodka. Larisa Kitiyeva, a 21-year-old student working in the kiosk, said she could not oblige. According to military prosecutors, Sysuyev then fetched his submachine gun and opened fire, killing Kitiyeva and spraying about 16 bullets into a nearby crowd. The men scrambled back into their vehicle and drove off.

The assault in the village in the largely Moslem republic of Ingushetia on Thursday has embarrassed the Russian military and underlines the tensions between Russians and the ethnic minorities of the Caucasus Mountains region.

While Russian generals boast of swift victories in their campaign in Chechnya, Moscow's politicians face a much tougher battle: convincing Chechens and other Caucasus peoples that it is in their interest to stay part of Russia.

Thursday's attack was the first such incident since federal forces entered Chechnya in September. But tensions have been high for weeks in places like Sleptsovskaya, a volatile mix of refugees, soldiers and residents, many of whom are putting up refugees in their homes.

"We have been expecting this kind of thing. This is only the beginning," Leila, 50, who sells vegetables in Sleptsovskaya, said. A ban on alcohol sales only increases the tension, she said.

"The [soldiers] are always coming to us for vodka. What can we say to them? We have no vodka. Our president forbids us to sell it. We explain this to soldiers every day. It doesn't work."

Ingushetia has been a main staging area for Russia's offensive in Chechnya and is the destination for most of the 220,000 Chechens who have fled the fighting. More than 7,000 refugees are living in Sleptsovskaya, just 2.5 kilometers from the Chechen border.

While Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev publicly apologized for Kitiyeva's killing, not all Russian commanders have been so ready to repent.

General Valery Manilov, a senior Russian commander, said initially that the assailants may have been "bandits dressed in our uniforms."

Later, witnesses accompanied prosecutors to Russian military checkpoints and bases to identify the suspects.

Sysuyev confessed, and the five men were charged in the killing, said Major General Alexei Verbitsky, deputy commander of the 58th Motor-Rifle Brigade, in which the five suspects served.

The attack is an example of the limited control Russia's commanders have over their troops, and undercuts Russian propaganda that army morale is high.

"The incident does not put the Russian army in a good light," Verbitsky said.

Other such examples are mounting.

Residents of several villages in Chechnya occupied by Russian troops have reported cases of looting by soldiers. Racial tensions also run high.

Friends and relatives have been gathering for days around Kitiyeva's family home, a one-story, tin-roofed house at the foot of a barren hillside.

NTV television Sunday showed one of her sisters sobbing and asking: "What did she do wrong?"