MOSCOW (AP) — Masked men bashed their way into the office of a human rights group in Chechnya on Wednesday, smashing furniture and sending the occupants fleeing through the windows, their colleagues said.
The Committee against Torture in the regional capital Grozny is at the front line of the activists' efforts to draw attention to what they say is a wide use of torture and extrajudicial killings in Chechnya under the iron-handed rule of a Kremlin-backed strongman following two separatist wars with Russia in the 1990s. The office does not have permanent staff and activists rotate in order to escape pressure from officials.
The group posted photos on its Twitter account Wednesday morning showing a masked mob trying to break down their door.
Oleg Khabibrakhmanov, regional coordinator for the Committee based in Nizhny Novgorod, told The Associated Press the men arrived late in the morning as part of a protest rally. Khabibrakhmanov said his colleagues in Grozny called police immediately but none arrived.
"Our conclusion is that they left us up for slaughter," said Khabibrakhminov, who was in touch with colleagues in Grozny.
The masked men were armed with crowbars and broke down the front door, but the activists had managed to escape through the windows of the second-floor office, Khabibrakhmanov said.
The men were seen to be smashing furniture, computers and destroying paper files and folders. Some of them brought an angle grinder and eventually broke through to the adjacent apartment where temporary staff of the group were working.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf expressed concern about the ransacking of the office and called on Moscow to "hold those involved in these attacks responsible for their actions and to protect the ability of civil society groups to perform their essential functions."
Chechnya's leader Ramzan Kadyrov on his Instagram account accused the Committee members of provoking the incident in order "to get international media coverage and receive new American grants."
The state-owned Grozny television station on its website on Wednesday described the incident as a "rally of civil organizations and representatives of the civil society" protesting against what they described as the "politicizing" of the group's work.
Several human rights activists have been murdered in Chechnya in the past decade as they sought to shed the light on Kadyrov's brutal regime.
The Committee against Torture aroused Kadyrov's ire before when it openly blamed him for burning the houses and persecuting the families of those who joined anti-government militants.
President Vladimir Putin has lauded Kadyrov for sustaining peace in Chechnya after two devastating separatist wars that killed tens of thousands. The Kremlin has turned a blind eye to rights abuses in Chechnya and has provided generous subsidies to fund Kadyrov's lavish construction projects.
Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.