MOSCOW - Russian authorities on Saturday raided the homes of eight activists from the Caucasus then detained them hundreds of miles from home, in a move believed to be tied to their criticism of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
The activists, all of whom are Circassians, an ethnic group native to the Sochi area, were taken hundreds of kilometres overnight without any explanation from the police.
"Right now they are telling us we are witnesses in some case," said Ibragim Yaganov, one of the detainees, while waiting for investigators while under police watch in a hotel.
Yaganov said police went to the houses of the eight activists, searched them, then transported them overnight to Krasnodar - a journey of over 450 kilometres (280 miles) from Nalchik in the Kabardino-Balkaria region - where he lives.
He said the police told activists they were looking for an extremist who was hiding in one of the houses.
"He seemed to have been hiding in all of our houses at the same time," said Yaganov.
The activists, who also come from Adygea and Karachayevo-Cherkessia which, together with Kabardino-Balkaria, are the three North Caucasus regions with large Circassian populations, "have no idea what is going on," he told AFP.
"We think it's connected to the Olympics. They are trying to ensure security like this, only security from the wrong people."
All of those detained have criticised the Olympic Games in the past but "never engaged in any extremist or separatist actions and have nothing to do with them," he said.
Circassians populated the Black Sea coast and mountains above Sochi until they were driven out by tsarist troops in the late 19th century after the end of the Caucasus War, which some have labelled genocide.
Their descendants - now living in North Caucasus regions in Russia as well as Muslim countries such as Turkey and Jordan - believe the area should not be hosting the sports event, and say the preparations have been destructive.
"First of all, colossal amounts of money has been stolen, secondly, our ancestral treasures have been destroyed, and thirdly, they turned the area into an environmental disaster," Yaganov said.
"All of this will be catastrophic, not just for Circassians but for all Russia."
The games in Sochi will be held between February 7-23 next year.