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Russia struggles to keep grip in Caucasus

Conflict are growing in the troubled region, where emotions still run high over the Beslan school massacre.

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Murat Zyazikov, the pro-Kremlin president of the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia, is a hunted man.

Since taking office in 2003, he has narrowly escaped assassination at the hands of a suicide car-bomber and a sniper, allegedly sent by local Islamic militants. In the past month alone, insurgents have bombed the motorcade of his deputy premier and opened fire on his security chief. A year ago, fighters loyal to Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev briefly seized the Ingush capital of Nazran, killing almost 100 police officers and government officials.

Mr. Zyazikov, a former general of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), shrugs all that off. "Things here are calm and peaceful," he told journalists at a meeting in his plush, golden-domed presidential palace. "These attacks against me and my officials are the work of desperate men who want to destabilize the situation in southern Russia. They hate the fact that we are building a worthy life for our people."

As the war in neighboring Chechnya grinds into its seventh year with no resolution in sight, conflicts are metastasizing around the troubled north Caucasus, which has been a zone of tension since it was conquered by Russia in the 19th century. The region is a patchwork quilt of warring ethnic groups and rival religions that makes Europe's other tangled knot, the Balkans, look tame by comparison.

Many experts say the Kremlin's grip, iron-hard in Soviet times, has slipped disastrously in recent years. "The Chechen conflict is spilling into neighboring republics, escalating the process of destabilization," says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

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