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Moscow - Russian authorities on Monday took steps to calm ethnic tensions after Moscow was rocked by some of its worst rioting in years, sparked by the killing of a Russian youth allegedly by a Muslim migrant from the Caucasus.
Seeking to show a firm hand against illegal migrants, police detained 1 200 people in a raid on a vegetable wholesale market, one of several dotted around the city perimeter that are notorious for employing undocumented workers.
The initially peaceful protest in the Biryulyovo district of southern Moscow to protest the killing of Yegor Shcherbakov, 25, rapidly descended into bloody clashes with the police that left the glass doors of a shopping centre smashed and cars upturned.
Police said late Sunday that 394 people, reportedly aged mainly between 14 and 25, had been arrested at the site of the riots and during a later raid nearby where rioters had attacked a stopped cargo train.
The RIA Novosti news agency said all would be released with the exception of 72 whose cases would be sent to court.
Police said calm had returned to the district after they brought in hundreds of reinforcements in a bid to deal with the crisis and enforced their “Vulkan” operation plan, which is used in case of a terror attack.
After a largely peaceful protest on Saturday, the rioting on Sunday began when protestors attacked a wholesale vegetable market where they thought Shcherbakov's suspected killer was hiding.
In a move aimed at showing they took locals' grievances seriously, Moscow police Monday raided the produce market and detained 1 200 people for identity checks.
“About 1 200 people have been taken to the police in the course of a raid on a produce market in Biryulyovo to check their criminal connections,” a representative of the Moscow police told AFP.
Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said more had to be done to deal with the situation with wholesale vegetable complexes in Moscow, which often employ large numbers of migrants in shadowy circumstances.
“Otherwise all provocateurs and extremists will use any possibility to get young people onto the barricades,” he said at a televised meeting.
Shcherbakov was murdered overnight Thursday in front of his girlfriend as they walked out of a billiards club in the area.
Media said security footage showed his killer was a man of “non-Slavic appearance” from the Northern Caucasus, leading nationalists to conclude that the murderer was a Muslim labour migrant.
The fuzzy image of the alleged killer published in Russian media however allows few conclusions to be drawn about the man's identity. One million rubles (22 000 euros, $30 000) has been offered for information leading to his arrest.
Tensions have ratcheted up in recent years in big cities like Moscow between ethnic Russians and migrants from Russia's largely Muslim Northern Caucasus as well as the Muslim states of ex-Soviet Central Asia.
The protestors in Biryulyovo accused the police of failing to investigate the murder swiftly enough and also called on the authorities to toughen up migration legislation.
“The investigation has a video image of the suspected criminal, and is conducting a massive search operation,” Investigative Committee spokesman Vladimir Markin said in a statement, insisting that everything was being done to find the killer.
Police are likely to be out in force around Moscow's major mosques on Tuesday as Russian Muslims celebrate Kurban Bayram, the annual feast of the sacrifice.
Immigration was the single biggest issue in September's elections for Moscow mayor, won by the pro-Kremlin incumbent Sobyanin despite a challenge from protest leader Alexei Navalny.
Navalny, who has taken a tough line on immigration, wrote on Monday that the Biryulyovo market had been a crime-plagued powder keg for years which authorities had ignored.
“You have to understand that the more horror a place densely populated by migrants brings to the lives of locals, the more money it brings to the security services and local authorities,” he wrote on his popular blog.
The clashes were the worst such ethnically fuelled unrest since Russian football fans and ultra-nationalists went on the rampage on Manezhnaya Square outside the Kremlin walls in December 2010.
In a similar scenario, they were demonstrating against the killing of a Russian football fan in a fight with a group from the Northern Caucasus.