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Bulldozers Raze Mansions After Night Raid

A special forces officer keeping people away from the yard of a mansion being demolished in the Rechnik neighborhood in western Moscow on Thursday. Vladimir Filonov
Bulldozers on Thursday began razing a neighborhood of mansions perched on a riverbank in Moscow's western outskirts that City Hall says was constructed illegally.

Earlier, riot police stormed the Rechnik neighborhood at about 4 a.m. and detained 15 residents who had braved freezing temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius to guard their homes.

Opposition activists criticized the nighttime raid as a blatant violation of human rights, but city authorities trumpeted the action as proof that it was clamping down on corruption.

The detainees were released later in the day, but at least three were hospitalized with injuries that they received during nighttime scuffles with police, RIA-Novosti reported.

By Thursday evening, an excavator had destroyed three houses, while special forces commandos dressed in black helmets and bulletproof vests kept at bay protesters, onlookers and journalists. At least one female resident said she would resist eviction by any means, Interfax reported.

Yury Alpatov, prefect for the city's Western Administrative District, said he had court orders to destroy 20 homes.

The police force denied reports that its OMON riot police had taken part in the raid. "No OMON forces were in Rechnik, but there were special forces from the court marshals to enforce a court decision," police spokeswoman Zhanna Ozhimina said, Interfax reported.

But in an indication that the police were involved, First Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Sukhodolsky ordered an internal investigation into the police action. Court marshals report to the Justice Ministry.

The escalation comes after years of bitter conflict between the city and residents of the Rechnik and Ogorodnik communities who over the past decade built sizable homes in a scenic park along the Moscow River. City authorities say construction in the environmentally protected area is illegal.

The homeowners, who reportedly include lawmakers, governors, war veterans and celebrities, received public support from a motley bunch of opposition groups, ranging from the liberal Yabloko party to the ultranationalist Slavic Union.

Analysts said the conflict was exceptional in that it has provoked clashes between those who claim that the state violates the law and authorities bent on fighting legal nihilism.

Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin condemned the crackdown. "Residents were evicted in the dark night and coldest of winter. They have not been shown documents to prove that the destruction is legal. The authorities are violating the law," he told The Moscow Times, speaking by telephone from one of the houses due to be razed.

Mitrokhin said the legal situation was not as clear as authorities claimed. "There are various court decisions — some support City Hall, others the residents," he said.

Lev Ponomaryov, a veteran campaigner and head of the For Human Rights movement, called the action a grave human rights violation. "Such decisions must be carried out in daytime and not at night. Action under the cover of night is more typical for bandits," he said, Interfax reported.

The owner of one the houses destroyed Thursday tried in vain to fend off destruction by refusing to leave her home, shouting from the balcony that the razing was illegal, even as the excavator was starting to tear down the building, Channel One reported.
 
The woman, Angelina Abramova, said she had not received any documents that would justify the razing, Moskovsky Komsomolets reported on its web site Thursday. But local officials said residents had been given six days' notice, RIA-Novosti reported.

Anton Belyakov, a State Duma deputy for A Just Russia, spoke with Abramova at the scene and offered his support, the Grani.ru web site reported.

Liberal Democrat Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky also traveled to the neighborhood, where he called on the government and the Interior Ministry to intervene. Communist lawmakers also criticized the destruction.

The General Prosecutor's Office said it had not received any complaints about the destruction Thursday.

City authorities defended the crackdown, pointing to numerous court decisions since Mayor Yury Luzhkov announced in May 2007 that the homes would be destroyed.

Oleg Mitvol, who was a top federal environmental inspector in 2007, said at the time that by law, "only apple and pear trees can grow there."

Alpatov, the local prefect, said the destruction was fully sanctioned by courts. "The law is the same for everyone and must be obeyed," he said, Interfax reported.

He added that he thought the media were overreacting because many of the buildings were expensive. "We take this as routine action. We do not agree with those who give unnecessary political weight to this," he said.

United Russia, the governing party that commands a two-thirds majority in the State Duma, backed City Hall.

"I used to support these people, but it is not right to say that they are victims. It was certainly clear that these houses were illegal and those living there thought that total corruption and lawlessness would solve their problems," Alexander Khinstein, a prominent journalist and State Duma deputy, said in a statement published on the party's web site.

Sergei Goncharov, a United Russia deputy in the City Duma, said the razing showed that corruption was being rooted out. "Some believe that you can get everything for money — but that is really our country's curse," he said.

Alexei Mukhin, an analyst with the Center for Political Information, said the situation was paradoxical. "The government provokes social protests by insisting on legality, and now those who regularly doubt its legality rush to use the protests to their own ends," he said.

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