Upsurge in Russian race killings marks run-up to Hitler's birthday

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The Independent Online

Russia is struggling to contain an upsurge in racist murders and attacks as skinheads in the country prepare to mark Adolf Hitler's birthday.

The past week alone has seen a slew of race-hate crimes perpetrated despite condemnation from politicians and threats of heavier jail sentences. Four Roma have been murdered and one Vietnamese man killed, and there have been at least seven "punishment beatings" of foreigners.

Anti-racism activists are warning that Russia's estimated 60,000 skinheads appear to be attacking their victims with increasing impunity and that the problem has spun out of control.

The authorities are braced for 20 April, the anniversary of Hitler's birth, when there is usually a peak in skinhead activity. Though the media are publicising the attacks, few public figures seem willing to admit how serious the problem is. Many refuse to believe that their country, which did more than any other to defeat fascism during the Second World War, has become such a potent breeding ground for neo-Nazis 60 years later.

On Sunday two Roma brothers, aged 26 and 27, were shot dead by a man who burst into their home in the Pskov region, about 400 miles north-west of Moscow. In the same arealast September a Roma was abducted and murdered. Leaflets were distributed calling for violence against the Roma, whom locals accuse of drug trafficking.

Last week 15 skinheads attacked a Roma encampment in southern Russia near the city of Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad. Armed with metal poles, they killed a 42-year-old man and a 45-year-old woman and seriously injured a 14-year-old girl and an 80-year-old woman.

Nine skinheads, aged from 15 to 19, have been arrested in connection with the attack. Some of them have confessed to the crime, admitting it was motivated by nationalist sentiment while others have said they acted as a result of drunken hooliganism.

A Vietnamese market trader, 50-year-old Chan Ngok Binh, was recently beaten to death by a group of schoolchildren armed with wooden batsin the Voronezh region, 300 miles south of Moscow. The man was attacked yards from his home and died of his wounds on 10 April. Three schoolchildren have been arrested and police are searching for another four.

On 7 April in St Petersburg, 28-year-old Lamzar Samba, a Senegalese student, was shot dead as he left a nightclub. The murder weapon, a pump-action shotgun, had a swastika stencilled on it along with the word "skinheads". Though police arrested a man they have since let him go for lack of evidence.

There is also a steady stream of non-fatal assaults that helps to create a climate of fear. On Saturday night two Mongolian students were beaten up in St Petersburg by 10 local football fans. On Friday night an Afghan man in St Petersburg suffered a similar fate and on Thursday, in the Siberian city of Chita, Chinese construction workers were attacked by local skinheads.

The authorities have promised to get tough but have yet to take any measures. The government has suggested introducing jail terms for racist attacks of up to three years and wants to fine people who produce, distribute or use Nazi paraphernalia and propaganda.

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