Chechnya holds mass rally in support of pro-Kremlin leader

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Grozny (Russia) (AFP)

Tens of thousands of people on Friday staged a state-sponsored rally in the Chechen capital Grozny in support of strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, days after he caused a furore by vowing to destroy critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kadyrov, who rules with an iron grip the North Caucasus region that was the scene of two separatist wars, penned a lengthy diatribe in pro-Kremlin daily Izvestiya this week against Putin's critics, calling them a "gang of jackals" who "dream of destroying our state."

The latest broadside by former rebel Kadyrov -- accused by human rights groups of overseeing torture, extrajudicial executions and corruption -- came after he last week called liberal independent media "enemies of Russia" that seek to sow "chaos" in the Caucasus and beyond.

The remarks caused an uproar and several people publicly criticised Kadyrov, with one local lawmaker in Siberia, Konstantin Senchenko, dubbing him "the shame of Russia" for amassing vast personal wealth and abusing his political post.

In response to the backlash Chechen authorities ordered a public demonstration of support on Friday for their Kremlin-backed leader.

An AFP photographer at the scene estimated the attendance at some 100,000 people, though authorities in regional police force said that more than 800,000 demonstrators had taken part in the rally.

The entire population of Chechnya is about 1.4 million.

Demonstrators chanted "We support Kadyrov", "our strength is our unity," among other slogans, and brandished portraits of Kadyrov and Putin, denouncing their opponents as enemies of the state.

Human rights activists say crowds at pro-Kremlin rallies are often boosted by large numbers of students and workers ordered to attend by state-run institutions.

Opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta published a scanned government order to state organisations to "ensure attendance of all employees in your organisation" to the rally.

It also quoted a university teacher as saying that state employees in Chechnya are forced to sign an undated dismissal request when they are hired, guaranteeing complete obedience due to risk of losing their job.

Several people who have challenged Kadyrov's grip on power have been killed in the past, including investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya and rights activist Natalia Estemirova.

Chechens are also thought to be behind the murder of opposition critic Boris Nemtsov, who was gunned down last February steps away from the Kremlin. Two suspects are reportedly linked to an armed squad answerable to Kadyrov.

In January last year, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of the mainly Muslim region in a state-sponsored demonstration against the publication of Prophet Mohammed cartoons in the wake of Islamist attacks in France.