When Arsen Butayev was seized on a street in broad daylight last month and held captive with four other men, including his younger brother, he must have known a terrible fate awaited them.
The incident illustrates the brutality of an underground war that is being waged in the northern Caucasus region, encompassing Chechnya and its neighbouring republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan.
On one side are Muslim extremists who want to break away from Moscow’s rule and set up an Islamic state. On the other are the Kremlin-backed forces hell-bent on stopping them. Caught in the middle are countless civilians.
It is unreported in Russia and virtually unnoticed by the rest of the world. Yet just five months after the long war in Chechnya was officially declared to be at an end, the northern Caucasus has seen a big upsurge in violence.
Five hundred people have been killed so far this year, double last year’s toll. It has become the Kremlin’s most pressing problem after the economic crisis.
“Violence is spreading across the entire region,” said one former Kremlin adviser. “It’s embarrassing but above all it’s alarming because clearly the heavy-handed tactics used so far are not working.”