Moscow – Russia on Thursday captured one of a gang of anti-police youths whose deadly attacks on the security forces in its Far East Region have gripped the public imagination, investigators said.
The authorities have launched a massive manhunt for the gang, accused of killing one police official and wounding three in a series of brutal attacks in the far-flung region bordering China using knives and automatic weapons.
But in a country where the police are deeply unloved, they have still been dubbed by the media as “Robin Hoods”, after the medieval outlaw of English folklore who robbed the rich and gave to the poor.
Over 71% of callers to the Echo of Moscow radio said the attackers were “Robin Hoods” compared to 29% who called them mere bandits, during a phone-in on Wednesday.
“As part of a special operation, police on June 10 detained a member of a criminal gang, suspected of attacking police,” investigators said in a statement.
The gang of at least five men is suspected of three attacks on police, apparently motivated by a grudge against the force.
More than 150 police officials have been deployed in the manhunt in the Far Eastern Primorye region, a local security services source told the RIA Novosti news agency.
Russian television showed helicopters searching the forested region, while police in flak jackets set up road blocks to check cars.
In a first attack on May 27, a police official was stabbed to death while on night duty. The attackers then ransacked the rural police station, stealing handcuffs and uniforms.
In the latest attack on Tuesday, the gang fired at two traffic police officials, wounding them. The attackers wore camouflage and wielded automatic weapons, according to Russian media.
The gang is also linked to third attack on a police car on May 29 that left one officer with gun shot wounds to his face.
Several of the gang have military training and one served in Chechnya, sources in the security services were cited by RIA Novosti as saying.
The public support for the gang underlines what critics say is near-daily abuse of office by the police forces, whose officers are regularly accused of violent crime and bribe-taking.
In November, the country’s interior minister even stressed members of the public had the right to use self-defence against abusive police officers.
The father of one of the suspects blamed “the lawlessness of the Russian police” for the attacks, saying his 18-year-old son Roman has been severely beaten by police officers before he fled home.
“They are all boys who have suffered at the hands of the police,” Vladimir Savchenko said on Wednesday in a radio interview with the Russian News Service.
He named the police service of the Kirov district.
Media speculated over the reasons for the attacks.
Anonymous letters were sent in April to police, prosecutors, courts and some political parties in the region demanding that top police officials be fired and threatening a “partisan war,” Kommersant reported.
The gang members also appeared to have links to nationalist groups and messages of support for their attacks appeared on far-right web sites. One of the suspects Alexander Sladkikh, 20, is known to be interested in Nazi ideology, Komsomolskaya Pravda reported, citing a local police official.
Two other suspects had been detained by police for beating up foreigners, Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported.