Foreign students scared to leave their homes after stabbings in St Petersburg

An African student was stabbed to death and another seriously wounded in St Petersburg over the Christmas weekend, raising fears that hate crimes are spreading across Russia. A Cameroonian student was killed just hours after another two Africans were slashed with a knife on the same street. All three victims were members of St Petersburg's Water Transport University, where many foreigners study and live together in dormitories. Many are now terrified to go out onto the streets of St Petersburg.

"We don't know who the next victim will be," said Toni Dukimo, an African student who was a friend of the murdered victim. "Maybe it will be me, when I am going home tonight."

Russian police, who have been criticised for a muted response to a spate of similar attacks, were reluctant to describe the stabbing as racially motivated. "It could be hooliganism, a settling of scores, extremism," said Sergei Zaitsev, a local police spokesman. But human rights groups in Russia say the murder has all the hallmarks of a rise in racially motivated attacks by skinhead groups over the past few years which has been "practically ignored" by authorities and police.

Andrew Suberu, deputy head of African Unity, a support group for African students in St Petersburg, said skinheads were definitely involved.

"According to my information, the attackers looked like skinheads. Now such attacks are a usual story in St Petersburg," he said.

According to the Moscow Bureau of Human Rights (MBHR), 59 people have been killed in racist attacks in Russia in the past two years. In October, an 18-year-old Peruvian student was murdered in a southern university town popular with British students. Enrique Urtado was set upon by a gang of 20 youths who beat him and his friends with metal poles and wooden stakes.

Researchers have warned that Voronezh, a depressed city with high unemployment rates 300 miles south of Moscow, had become the country's main skinhead recruiting ground, labelling the city a "crucible of race hatred". Russia is estimated to be home to more than 50,000 skinheads, with 10,000 in Moscow and 5,000 in St Petersburg alone.

Critics argue the lethargic attitude of the police in chasing and prosecuting racist attacks has encouraged neo-Nazi groups to flourish. Using names such as "Blood and Honour", "Moscow Hammer Skin" and "Skin Legion" some observers fear their numbers could rise to over 100,000 within a few years.

It is not just extremist racism on the peripheries of society that is worrying observers. A leading racism monitoring website in Russia surveyed opinion in the first half of 2005 and found up to 60 per cent of Russians held some type of xenophobic viewpoint. Among the least-liked ethnic minorities were Chechens, Azeris and Armenians. Much of the neo-Nazi literature circulating among extremist groups in Russia has concentrated on insisting Russia is a purely white country.

Political parties have also increasingly resorted to tough immigration policies and xenophobic rhetoric to win votes. The MBHR recently published a report monitoring xenophobia during the Moscow local elections and found "a number of political parties adhering to xenophobic slogans in their election campaigns". Slogans such as "Russia for Russians" and "Russian faces in the Russian capital" were increasingly popular, they said.

In June this year, public figures from St Petersburg wrote an open letter to President Vladimir Putin warning him of the rise of neo-Nazism in Russia. "You certainly know that in the last years along with traditional anti-Semitism and xenophobia another kind of racism is thriving in Russia," they wrote. "The racism of Nazi nature is the ideological basis for crimes sweeping over our country."