MOSCOW (AP) — In a terrifying outburst of brutality, a small group of journalists investigating human rights abuse in Russia's North Caucasus became victims themselves — waylaid by cars full of masked men who dragged them by the hair from their minibus, beat them with sticks and set the vehicle ablaze.
Four Russian journalists, one reporter each from Norway and Sweden, and two activists from Russia's Committee to Prevent Torture, were headed with a driver toward Chechnya's provincial capital of Grozny on Wednesday evening when several cars forced their bus off the road and the ferocious attack began.
As they smashed the bus windows and pulled the passengers out, the assailants were shouting "You aren't human rights activists, you're terrorists; you're killing our people," Maria Persson Lofgren said Thursday on Swedish Radio, her employer.
The attack near the border of Chechnya drew attention to the violence and anger that blight the region and brought condemnation of Russian authorities for tolerating or encouraging it.
The Norwegian reporter who was on the trip said he escaped from the group's minibus only seconds before it exploded into flames.
Oystein Windstad of the Ny Tid weekly told The Associated Press that the men who ambushed the bus had dragged others off the vehicle, some by the hair, but that he resisted.
"I resisted going out of the bus because I thought: 'OK, if I'm out on this country road somewhere in the Caucasus, this is your death. You're finished, this is your death,'" Windstad said from a hospital in Ingushetia, just over the border from Chechnya.
He tried to escape by jumping through a window of the bus, when the assailants weren't looking.
"I ran toward a dark field and I few seconds after I jumped out of the car, the whole bus exploded. It was completely in flames just five seconds after I jumped out," he said.
Windstad said two of his teeth were broken and he got stitches under his eye, on his chin, a foot and a knee, and Lofgren said she was beaten, and needed 10 stitches in her thigh after she was thrown onto an iron beam by the roadside. She was also heavily bruised on her arms and legs.
Lofgren said that although the attack took place in the republic of Ingushetia, "everyone here points their fingers at ... Chechnya, and it is hard not to agree with that.
"Because above all that is where there is a very tough regime and where people don't have any wider human rights and that was, among other things, what we wanted to investigate the story about and that is why they attacked us," she said.
After two separatist wars that nearly obliterated Grozny over the past 20 years, Chechnya now sees little fighting and massive federal funds have financed its rebuilding. But the comparative quiet is overlaid by Chechnya's belligerent president, Ramzan Kadyrov, whose security force is widely alleged to commit murder and torture.
Kadyrov's fierce proclamations of loyalty to the Kremlin have included a recent video showing opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov in the crosshairs of a rifle sight. His allies have denounced the opposition as "devils" and "jackals."
Russia's liberal opposition has accused Kadyrov of involvement in last year's assassination of prominent Kremlin critic Boris Nemtsov; the suspected triggerman was an officer in Kadyrov's security force.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Thursday decried the attack as "absolutely outrageous, absolute hooliganism ... and this is totally unacceptable."
But the Committee to Protect Journalists said authorities were effectively complicit in the attack.
"The attack follows a burst of menacing comments on social media and in the press ... by government officials in Chechnya," a CPJ statement said. The assault "was enabled by the government's inaction in the face of overt hostility to the press."
Amid suspicion that the attackers were Kadyrov thugs, Chechen government ombudsman suggested a conspiracy "to sow discord, suspicion and mistrust among our people."
He said he did not discount the possibility that the attack was designed so that "the news would go outside the country's boundaries," the state news agency Tass reported.
Associated Press writer Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.