Associated Press
Police officers wearing masks and camouflage disperse an opposition rally in Nazran, in the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia.

NAZRAN, Russia (AP) — Protesters angry with the leadership of Ingushetia clashed with riot police Saturday, throwing rocks and firebombs the day after the government started a major security operation in the troubled southern Russian region.

Police responded by firing live rounds over the heads of some of the 300 protesters who tried to gather in the central square of Ingushetia's main city, Nazran; heavily armed riot police blocking side streets beat protesters with rubber truncheons.

At least one person was wounded in the melee, and Kazbek Ilyasov, one of the protest organizers, said as many 35 people were detained, threatening to send the already tense situation in the North Caucasus region spiraling out of control.

A duty officer at Nazran city police denied that anyone had been detained or arrested, but a spokesman for Ingush prosecutor's office, Vladislav Tsvetayev, told The Associated Press that around 20 people had been detained.

Protesters — many of whom appeared to be young men — set fire to a nearby hotel and the building of a local pro-government newspaper that the opposition has criticized for praising authorities.

Some of the protesters threw rocks and incendiary devices at police, who fired shots into the air before moving into the crowd, beating people severely and hauling them into waiting police vans.

An Associated Press reporter saw at least half a dozen people forcibly detained, including four journalists, and dozens more people were believed arrested. Ekho Moskvy radio said two of its correspondents, a reporter from Fifth Channel TV and a reporter from Radio Liberty, were later escorted out of the region by police. Workers with the human rights group Memorial said two activists were also forcibly detained.

"Everyone even indirectly involved in organizing this protest will be severely punished," regional Interior Minister Musa Medov told AP.

Svetlana Gorbakova, an official with the Ingush Investigative Committee, defended the police response, saying the protesters were planning to carry out vandalism and arson attacks on government buildings.

The police crackdown was one of the harshest to date on protests in this poor, mostly Muslim republic of fewer than 500,000 people.

Much of the violence that has plagued it in recent years is seen as a spillover from neighboring Chechnya, which shares a language and culture and where two wars have been fought against separatist rebels. Ingushetia has many refugees from Chechnya's fighting and is seen as sympathetic to separatists.

Government critics attribute the growing number of attacks in the region — mostly against police — to anger fueled by abductions, beatings, unlawful arrests and killings of suspects by government forces and local allied paramilitaries.

Many Ingush are also intensely unhappy with regional President Murad Zyazikov, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and a former KGB agent.

Government forces on Friday began security campaign in several districts of Ingushetia in response to a surge in violence and abductions. Regional law-enforcement bodies together with federal interior and security forces increased identity checks and searches for militants and their arms caches in abandoned buildings and other places.

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Associated Press reporters Musa Sadulayev in Nazran and Sergei Venyavsky in Rostov-on-Don contributed to this report.