MOSCOW (Reuters) - The head of Russia's Muslim Chechnya region Monday urged followers to "eradicate" the age-old practice of bride kidnapping, a tradition outlawed by Russian law, but still practiced in the region.
Analysts say the region's powerful leader Ramzan Kadyrov is facing increased pressure from his backers in the Kremlin to curb local traditions that violate federal laws, including what critics say are moves to introduce religious-based rules.
"I declare ... that we will root out once and for all from our society the kidnapping of young women," Kadyrov said, according to Russian state-run news web site Vesti.ru.
"This is the Russian Federation, where kidnapping is a crime," he added.
The ancient practice of bride kidnapping, although now widely associated in Russia with Islam, was taking place in the Caucasus prior to its conversion to Islam, some 250 years ago.
The tradition is also practiced in post-Soviet central Asia.
The Kremlin is heavily dependent on Kadyrov to staunch an Islamist insurgency in the region, and rights activists say he is taking advantage of his position to exceed his legal authority.
Kadyrov has combined support of a relatively mild version of Islam with strong-arm police tactics against extremists in a bid to control powerful Islamist sentiment.
Critics say the measures are inching the Chechen Republic closer toward autonomy from Moscow. Kadyrov says the claims are attempts to blacken his name.
Chechnya fought two separatist wars with the Russian army since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Kadyrov fought Russian forces during the first Chechen separatist war in the early 1990s but switched to Moscow's side when the conflict reignited in 1999.
Kadyrov's condemnation of bride kidnapping, which is already outlawed in Russia, demonstrates the autonomy which Chechnya already enjoys.
"We follow Islam, which unequivocally condemns such a practice and which does not recognize marriage without the true consent of the girl," Kadyrov was quoted as saying.
In August Chechnya's spiritual leader successfully ordered the shutting down of all eateries during Ramadan, the holy Muslim month of fasting.
Separately, many women said they had been harassed by men for not wearing headscarves in what some of the assailants said were instructions from religious authorities.
The Ramadan orders followed words of praise from Kadyrov who told state TV he was grateful to attackers who targeted women with paintball pellets in June for not wearing headscarves.
Editing by Noah Barkin