Rocky trail for Kremlin's conflict-zone ski resorts

Sun Apr 28, 2013 11:13am EDT
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By Alissa de Carbonnel

ELBRUS, Russia (Reuters) - Police checkpoints, pot-holed roads and a billboard that shows the Earth in flames and warns "Terrorism is a threat to humanity" might put off visitors to Russia's ski resort at Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in Europe.

These days only a handful of the most intrepid skiers and hikers make it to Elbrus, which dominates the North Caucasus region, where Islamist insurgents from ethnic minorities are fighting Russian rule and want to establish an Emirate.

Elbrus is the unlikely centerpiece of a $26-billion Kremlin project for a chain of luxury mountain resorts that Moscow hopes will succeed, where guns and troops have not, in ending the violence and easing dissent in the region.

Russia's high Caucasus mountains will have their debut on the global stage of winter sports next year with the Olympic games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi - a pet project of President Vladimir Putin.

By investing in tourism in other parts of the mountain range, Moscow hopes it can curb the flow of young men into the ranks of militants - who have come to the world's attention in the past two weeks after the Boston bombing suspects were found to have roots in the region.

So far it has not been easy. Weeks after the investment plan was unveiled in 2011, gunmen attacked a tourist minibus, killing three people, and blew up a ski lift.

"People are killed all the time there ... Who is going to go on vacation there?" asked Vladimir Kantorovich, vice president of the Russian Association of Tour Operators.

And violence is not the only problem. In April, scores of heavily armed police raided the Moscow and regional offices of Northern Caucasus Resorts, the company set up to run the investment scheme, to investigate accusations against its former boss. He was charged with embezzlement and has left the country.   Continued...

Skiers sit in a chair-lift while ascending to the top of Elbrus's neighbouring Mount Cheget, with security personnel seen in the background, February 3, 2013. REUTERS/Kazbek Basayev