Aliskhan Pliyev was talking on his cell phone with his girlfriend one autumn afternoon when two dozen masked men in uniforms stormed into his family's house, grabbed him and began to hustle him away.
The 30-year-old construction worker's three sisters screamed, demanding to know where the intruders were taking him. "None of your business!" a man in a black mask shouted, before Pliyev was driven off in a convoy of cars and vans escorted by an armored personnel carrier. He hasn't been seen since.
Officials here in the Russian region of Ingushetia say they don't know anything about Pliyev's abduction, one of scores in recent months that have caused fresh outrage and grief in a region already scarred by over 15 years of fighting.
But the young man's kidnapping in the outskirts of Ingushetia's largest city bears the hallmarks of what rights activists call Russia's "policy of state terror," a shadow war against violent Muslim separatists in the North Caucasus, a strategic crossroads of Europe and Asia.
A central tactic in the war, activists say, is forced disappearances — the brazen snatching of young people from their homes or off the street, often by gangs of masked men who move freely, even in areas heavily patrolled by Russian military and police. The pace of forced disappearances has doubled in the past year, following a spike in militant attacks on police and authorities, including suicide bombings, ambushes and assassinations.
The lucky ones are brutally interrogated and released. Some turn up dead, their bodies bearing the marks of torture. Other families face the anguish of never knowing the fate of a father, brother or son.
But critics say the kidnappings have aggravated rather than reduced tensions along Russia's southern border.
Some analysts warn that, after five years of relative calm, anger over the latest rash of kidnappings could inspire a fresh wave of terror attacks in Russia, a country that supplies the world with much of its oil and gas and has one of the world's largest nuclear arsenals.
Khamatkhan Makhloyev, 62, a retired Soviet construction manager, says more than 20 masked soldiers in unmarked uniforms burst into his family's red brick home in the quiet Ingush village of Sleptsovskaya at 4 a.m. in late October.
They stormed straight to a third-floor bedroom, savagely beat one son, Ibragim, and dragged off his elder brother, Maskhud, a 27-year-old factory worker. Maskhud hasn't been seen since.
Sitting somberly in his dining room last month, the elder Makhloyev said he was certain Maskhud was not a militant and bitterly accused security agencies of acting like "wild animals." His appeals to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Ingushetia's regional president Yunus-bek Yevkurov, he said, have been in vain.
The authorities "are strengthening the militants" through their brutal tactics, he said. "They don't kill dogs in this way." His wife Aminat, 55, a frail woman with dark circles under her eyes, sobbed beside him, silently fingering x-rays of Ibragim's broken bones.
It's not clear why intruders grabbed Maskhud, one of six children. But his father said the raiders seized family heirlooms, a kinzhal knife and a lambswool astrakhan hat, symbols in the Caucasus of the 19th-century guerrillas who fought the imperial Russian army.
Later, standing in the dark courtyard of his home, the elder Makhloyev looked around and shook his head. "I hoped someday to have weddings here, and not just funerals," he said.
Russian officials have repeatedly rejected charges that security forces engage in systematic rights abuses. Instead, authorities blame militants for abductions and murders, calling them "provocations" intended to turn citizens against Moscow.
A day after the July kidnapping and slaying of rights activist Natalya Estemirova in Grozny, the capital of neighboring Chechnya, President Dmitry Medvedev called accusations that security forces were involved "primitive" and "unacceptable."
"It's a deliberate provocation," he said.
Alison Gill of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch said Medvedev's remarks "set a limit on the investigation" into Estemirova's forced disappearance, exempting authorities from scrutiny.
Rights groups say Muslim separatists attack civilians in the Caucasus, often on religious grounds. There have been assaults on fortune tellers, prostitutes and merchants selling alcohol, while a rebel Web site has threatened school principals and teachers with death if they ban headscarves or seat girls next to boys in classrooms.
But activists also accuse the government of forced disappearances, illegal detentions, extra-judicial killings and house burnings. In a report last month, the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial called for an end to "the massive and systematic human rights violations by the security agencies."
In recent months kidnappers have increasingly targeted activists like Estemirova, in what rights groups fear is part of a plan to intimidate them into silence. In Ingushetia and Chechnya, where thousands of people have disappeared during post-Soviet Russia's two wars against separatists, dozens of people who once monitored rights violations have stopped working or fled.
"All rights activists are uneasy," said one Ingush activist, who spoke on condition he not be identified because he feared for his life. He was planning to leave for France, he said, after security officials approached him and warned him he might be killed.
He said one officer told him: "We are with the special services, we are not simple cops. Think about that."
Lidia Yusupova, a Chechen human rights lawyer and 2009 candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, told The Associated Press she may have been a target of the same shadowy men who abducted and killed Estemirova.
Two suspicious men staked out her apartment in Grozny and questioned neighbors the day before Estemirova was killed, her friends told her. She wasn't home at the time.
"It could not be just a coincidence," she said in an interview in the cramped offices of a Chechen rights group in central Moscow. "Maybe they had an order to take away some well-known rights activist."
Symbol of resistance
Some are abducted, activists say, after their names surface during brutal interrogations. Often, kidnappers target the relatives of known or suspected militants.
In some cases, the disappeared seem to have the wrong friends, attend the wrong mosque or otherwise raise suspicions, for example, by having a wolf call ring tone on their cell phone. In the Caucasus, the wolf is a symbol of resistance to Russian rule.
Alikshan Pliyev's mother, Leila Pliyeva, a white-haired medical technician at a government health clinic, said she was baffled by her son's abduction. He could not be a religious militant, she said, because unlike most other youths here he never attended mosque.
As in the case with most disappearances, police and government officials told her they had no idea what happened to her son. But she said she is sure government forces were responsible. "It can only be the special services," she said sadly.
Her son could be among the lucky ones who are eventually freed, she says, sounding as though she is trying to persuade herself.
"I have hope," Pliyeva said, as tears welled in her eyes. "But do you see how it is with us?"