Members of a human rights groups active in Chechnya say their office has been torched after they criticised the Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov for calling for collective punishment against families of Muslim rebels.

The damage is serious. That was caused not by the fire but by vandalism.

- Dmitry Utukin, rights group

"The damage [to the offices] is serious. All the equipment has been smashed. That was caused not by the fire but by vandalism," activist Dmitry Utukin of the Joint Mobile Group told AFP news agency on Sunday.

The attack on the rights group's office in Grozny on Saturday, followed arson attacks reported against eight homes linked to rebels'  families in the wake of a surprise raid on the Chechen capital on December 4.

On Sunday, paramilitary police also searched the apartment where two members of the rights group were staying, Utukin said.

"It's not very clear what is happening because their phones have been confiscated," Utukin said. "Our lawyer is going there."

The group's other staff members "are in a safe place", Utukin said.

It is the latest chapter in years of harassment and murder of human rights activists and journalists investigating torture, kidnapping and war crimes in Chechnya, where Russia has been fighting nationalist and armed rebels for 20 years.

Kadyrov's threat

Following the December 4 attack, Kadyrov, the authoritarian head of Chechnya's government, announced that relatives of any rebels should be exiled and their homes destroyed.

After Kadyrov's statement on his popular Instagram account, at least eight houses belonging to people related to the rebels were burnt down, according to a statement by Memorial, another rights group, this week.

Now violence has spread to human rights activists.

Chechnya policemen killed in Grozny attack

Igor Kalyapin, head of the Moscow-based Committee Against Torture, wrote on Facebook that before the fire at the Joint Mobile Group's offices on Saturday, two men had tried to break in.

Activists had also been followed by armed men, he said.

Tatiana Lokshina, the Russia programme director at Human Rights Watch, wrote on Facebook that the "Chechen leadership apparently decided to expel the Joint Mobile Group of human rights defenders from Chechnya - along with relatives of insurgents."

Kalyapin has appealed to the Russian prosecutor-general to investigate Kadyrov's statement.

Kadyrov responded on Instagram last week that Kalyapin and other activists are defending "bandits" and suggested that Kalyapin was being used by "western special services" to pay the rebels.

Source: AFP