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Russia faces a rising tide of attacks on ethnic minorities

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia—Lillian Sissoko is a 9-year-old Russian schoolgirl who loves her nation. But her father is African and she's dark-skinned—and for that, her family believes, she was almost killed.

On March 25, two white men followed her into the apartment building where she lives and stabbed her twice in the neck. She almost bled to death as she staggered up a flight of stairs, crying, "Mommy, they beat me." Her mother, Katia, said the attackers painted white-supremacist graffiti near the entrance.

Hatred is blooming with spring in many parts of Russia. Racially motivated violence has been happening almost daily in Russia since the start of the year, according to Sova, a Moscow group that monitors such incidents. The attacks, President Vladimir Putin has said, "threaten the very stability of our multi-ethnic state."

The rise in racist attacks is particularly sensitive in this port city on the Gulf of Finland. Not only is St. Petersburg Putin's hometown, but it's also the host city for the Group of Eight meeting in July. The leaders of the world's most important industrialized countries, including President Bush, will be attending, and the city's major buildings are getting facelifts.

But St. Petersburg also has been the scene of some of the most brazen racial attacks by white supremacists.

Last week, a gunman fired into a group of African students as they walked from a nightclub two blocks from the four-story high school where Putin graduated in 1970. The gunfire killed Lamzar Samba, 28, a communications student from Senegal.

A day later, skinheads reportedly beat two Tajik men and pushed them from a train near Moscow, killing one and leaving the other in critical condition.

The nation's leading pollster, Yuri Levada, said hate crimes are an outgrowth of deep resentment over migrants and other foreigners who come to Russia for work or to study—some illegally and many from Central Asia, the Caucasus and other parts of the former Soviet Union.

The federal migration service estimates that 20 million immigrants enter Russia annually, about half of them illegally.

Levada said surveys indicate that hatred and intolerance of non-ethnic Russian migrants are "very widespread." About half of ethnic Russians don't want migrants in Moscow and St. Petersburg. "It's a very solid base," Levada said.

Putin has urged local police to take a tougher stand against racial violence.

"We have to admit that the law enforcement agencies have underestimated the danger" of racist violence, Putin told Interior Ministry employees on Feb. 17, the last public comments he's made on the subject.

But many believe that the continued attacks are evidence that the government hasn't done enough and that some officials even support the attacks.

"The main Nazis sit in the Russian Duma of the Russian Federation," Russia's ambassador to Tajikistan, Ramazan Abdylatipov, said earlier this month, referring to the lower house of Russia's parliament where the deputy chairman is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a politician who's often accused of encouraging violence with militant nationalist rhetoric.

Many of the victims of racial attacks are Tajiks, many of whom enter Russia illegally and work on farms or in construction.

Statistics from Sova indicate that the number of racial attacks rose last year, though the number of killings declined. In 2005, racial attacks injured 408 people, 28 of whom died, Soya statistics show. In 2004, the number was 254, with 46 killed.

So far this year, through April 11, 83 racial attacks have been reported, with eight deaths.

Sova director Alexander Verkhovsky said he believes the number of attacks is higher. He said law enforcement agencies do a poor job of classifying and reporting such attacks.

"It never happens," Verkhovsky said of official cooperation with the center, which learns about most incidents from the news media. The majority of cases, he said, remain unsolved.

White supremacists operate openly. One group has published a street terror manual that urges followers to attack randomly and mercilessly. Another touts a manifesto to "cleanse" Russia's 143 million population of the 20 percent who aren't ethnic Russians. The Bureau of Human Rights estimates that 50,000 supremacists are active nationwide.

Nazar Mirzoda, a leader of St. Petersburg's ethnic Tajik community, said a recent jury verdict in the 2004 stabbing death of a 9-year-old girl from Tajikistan shows that Russian courts can't be counted on for justice.

Eight people were charged with taking part in the Feb. 9, 2004, beating and stabbing death of Khursheda Sultanova. But none was convicted of murder, and the most severe punishment was a 5 {-year prison sentence for the primary defendant, Roman Kazakov, 16, who was convicted of hooliganism.

"They participated in the beating, but didn't kill her. How could this be?" Mirzoda asked. "I would say the verdict's inhumane. They killed a person."

Mirzoda said ethnic Tajiks are particularly vulnerable because so many of them, perhaps as many as 700,000, are in the country illegally.

But even the native-born are worried. Lillian Sissoko's mother, Katia, is one of them.

An ethnic Russian, she said other Russians resented that she'd married a man from Mali. The couple has since divorced, and Lillian's father has returned home.

"It was always difficult for Russians because I was married to an African," she said. "It was similar to being a prostitute."

Now she'd like to leave. "I want to go to some free country where we won't be harassed," she said. Her daughter has similar thoughts, she said, telling her "I love Russia, but I don't want to be killed here."

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(Bonner reports for the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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