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May 17, 1:55 PM EDT

Russian opposition leader, 5 others hurt in Cossack attack

AP Photo
AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin

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MOSCOW (AP) -- A group of Cossacks attacked Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and his associates and beat some of them outside an airport in southern Russia on Tuesday, an assault highlighting an increasingly harsh environment for Kremlin critics.

Navalny and five others were injured in the attack, which came when about 30 employees of Navalny's anti-corruption foundation were holding a team-building weekend in the countryside, Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said.

They had arrived at the Anapa airport Tuesday morning when a group of Cossacks surrounded them, yelling "Get off our land!" before charging at the group, beating up men and women. She says one person in the group was hospitalized.

Videos of the attack posted on social media showed more than a dozen men in Cossack hats and coats attacking the group, which included women and Navalny's small son.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said he couldn't comment on the incident because he lacked detail of what happened there.

Cossacks, a paramilitary group dating back to czarist times, have gone through a revival in recent years, and in southern Russia the Cossacks had been granted the right to patrol the streets. In arguably the most-publicized incident of Cossack violence, several men attacked members of the Pussy Riot punk collective with whips during an impromptu performance in the Black Sea resort of Sochi during the 2014 Winter Games.

Navalny tweeted that the attack was coordinated and pre-planned, adding that the group has been under surveillance since it arrived in southern Russia last week. On Friday, Navalny and his associates were stopped by traffic police and detained for several hours for what police later said was a routine check.

Navalny and other opposition activists have faced threats and repeated harassment by right-wing activists, who have thrown eggs, green antiseptic and cakes at them.

In a separate incident reflecting the challenges for Kremlin foes, Pyotr Pavlensky, a Russian performance artist who has been in custody since November after he set fire to the doors of Russia's security services, said in a letter released by his associate Tuesday that guards in court had beaten him, causing a cracked rib. The Interfax news agency said that prison officials would check Pavlensky's claim.

Activists have criticized the Kremlin for cultivating the climate of intolerance they say contributed to the February 2015 slaying of Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister turned opposition leader who was shot dead just outside the Kremlin.

The suspects arrested in the slaying are all from the republic of Chechnya, and the suspected triggerman served as an officer in the security forces of the Moscow-backed Chechen leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Russia's liberal opposition activists have accused Kadyrov of involvement in the killing, accusations he has rejected.

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