ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook.
The battles that raged for years in the Russian Republic of Chechnya have, for the most part, died down. But tensions are mounting next door - in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. This is a largely Muslim region where gunmen are attacking ethnic Russians. The Russian government has responded by sending in thousands of troops. And this crackdown, locals say, is making matters worse.
NPR's Gregory Feifer recently traveled to Ingushetia and filed this report.
GREGORY FEIFER: The impoverished village of Karbala lies near the foothills of this snowcapped Caucasus Mountains and the border with Chechnya. A handful of Christian Russian families had lived alongside Muslim Ingush residents here for generations.
At this time of year, the area is blanketed by thick fog and the smell of burning leaves. But now, there's also a sense of fear. Vera Draganchuk(ph) is a grandmotherly ethnic Russian school teacher with thick glasses. She says although gunfire is common here, she was woken by the sound of shots in the middle of the night last month to see her 22-year-old son swaying in the doorway.
Ms. VERA DRAGANCHUK (School Teacher): (Through translator) He didn't say anything, but I can see there was real fear in his eyes. Then I realized that the shooting had taken place in my house. Misha(ph), I said. Quick, jump out of the window.
FEIFER: But he couldn't. Mikael Draganchuk(ph) had been shot through the chest and collapsed. His father was already crumpled on the floor, dead. Then Vera Draganchuk heard moaning from the room of her second son. When she entered, she saw 19-year-old Denis(ph) soaked in blood. Draganchuk held him, trying to comfort him, but says he died soon after.
Ms. DRAGANCHUK: (Through translator) He was such a wonderful child - so sweet and intelligent. He wanted to do something for other people. Mama, you'll be proud of me, he used to say. You'll see what kind of a place Russia can become. But all that's gone now. My life is over.
FEIFER: Draganchuk says she didn't see who killed her husband and sons in the pitch dark. Militants have long been staging almost daily attacks against law enforcers and officials as violence has spilled out of neighboring Chechnya. But the latest shootings are unusual. Someone's targeting the local Russians here, and no one knows why.
Officials have blamed the killing on Islamist extremists trying to undermine Ingushetia's stability. The attack began last summer when another Russian school teacher was shot along with her two children. Since then, around 15 civilians have died, including an elderly man shot near his house in Karbala earlier this month.
Unidentified Woman: (Russian spoken)
FEIFER: A woman buys vegetables at the village's outdoor market. Others step past muddy puddles, shopping for food and clothes. People here say it's increasingly difficult to live normally despite official claims the region is stable after years of unrest.
It's not just the Russians who are living in increasing fear in Ingushetia. The authorities have sent thousands of troops into the tiny region. The village of Karbala is swarming with armored personnel carriers and soldiers guarding main roads, searching houses and, locals say, terrifying residents.
In the nearby village of Skopsausk(ph), English resident Haji Bekar Meirsoyuf(ph) says armed soldiers wearing masks broke into this house looking for his son. Afterward, he persuaded his 24-year-old the safest option would be to go to the police station himself but that turned out to be a mistake.
Mr. HAJI BEKAR MEIRSOYUF (Resident, Skopsausk): He was beaten and told to confess to terrorist acts, but he refused. When he was release four months later without charge, he lost half his weight.
FEIFER: Soon after, Meirsoyuf says Russian troops killed his son, planting a grenade on his body to claim they had shot a militant. Timur Akiev of the Memorial Human Rights group says that's typical of extrajudicial killings carried out by special forces.
Mr. TIMUR AKIEV (Member, Memorial Human Rights): (Through translator) The security services are unable to get to the militants so they shoot unarmed young men in broad daylight, accuse them of extremism and blame them for numerous crimes.
FEIFER: Most locals believe there are only around 200 militants here -separatist rebels and Islamists who have little influence in a region that's been traditionally stable and loyal to Moscow.
Akiev says many suspect the special forces of killing local Russians to stir up the conflict here. The fighting means soldiers get extra pay and officers get promotions and special powers to control local life.
Mr. AKIEV: (Through translator) The militants in the federal forces wear the same fatigues, the same masks and use the same weapons to kill people. It's simply impossible to say who's murdering the villagers.
FEIFER: The local authorities are caught between the militants and so-called federal forces. Army Lieutenant Colonel Hamzat Malzaga(ph) heads the district military board. He's an Ingush who lives in the besieged village of Karbala and unusually is willing to speak out against what he sees as abusive policies.
Lieutenant Colonel HAMZAT MALZAGA (Chechnya Army): (Through translator) What legal code stipulates that suspected militants be shot in the head? Only a court can decide whether someone's guilty of a crime. How can you protect the civilian population when each victim of the special forces creates 10 militant supporters?
(Soundbite of school bell ringing)
FEIFER: At a local school, children move between classes. But there are armed troops in the playground; and inside, the classrooms are half-empty because the killings are prompting Russian families to leave. And I think Russian teacher who says she's afraid to give her name is also considering fleeing Ingushetia.
Unidentified Woman (Teacher): (Through translator) You go to sleep each night not knowing if you'll wake up in the morning. You jump at every noise. We just don't know what's going to happen to us if we stay here.
FEIFER: But like Vera Draganchuk - the woman who lost her husband and sons last month - most Russians still living in Ingushetia say they can't afford to leave.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Moscow.