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SURKHAKHI, Russia (Reuters) - More than 3,000 people gathered Monday in the Russian republic of Ingushetia to bury an opposition campaigner whose murder rights groups say has underlined the slide into violence across the North Caucasus.
Maksharip Aushev, 43, who campaigned against what he said were abductions by the security forces, died at the wheel of his car after his vehicle was peppered with bullets as he drove to visit relatives in the nearby republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.
Mourners gathered in drizzle at a graveyard by a small mosque in the village of Surkhakhi, about 10 km (6 miles) outside Ingushetia's biggest city, Nazran, to bury Aushev.
Wailing men gently lowered Aushev's body, tightly covered in a white sheet, into the moist ground before planting a tombstone with his name in both Arabic and Russian.
His murder Sunday came just over a year after his friend, reporter Magomed Yevloyev, was killed in police custody in Ingushetia, Russia's smallest region and one of its poorest.
Yevloyev's parents have since said they have lodged an appeal with Europe's human rights court after previous cases at home collapsed, underscoring what rights activists say is a worsening situation in the country's volatile North Caucasus.
Rights groups called on Russian leaders to condemn the murder and ensure those responsible were brought to justice.
"There needs to be a clear condemnation of this kind of killing by the Russian leadership because what happens at the highest level sends a signal to those below," Allison Gill, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) director in Russia, told Reuters.
Sarah Mendelson, director of the Human Rights and Security Initiative at the U.S.-based think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said international dialogue was key.
"Until you have senior government officials in the U.S. and various European capitals talk about what's going on in the North Caucasus, you're not going to see any international justice," she told Reuters Monday from Washington.
There has been no Kremlin reaction to the killing so far.
At least four prominent campaigners have been killed so far this year, including Stanislav Markelov, a lawyer acting for the family of a Chechen girl murdered by a Russian army colonel, who was shot in central Moscow in broad daylight.
On July 15, Chechen activist Natalia Estemirova was murdered by unknown assailants, making international headlines and provoking outrage from world leaders.
Aushev, who was from a prominent Ingush family and had a flourishing construction business, dived into local politics in 2007 by leading a campaign against the republic's security services who he blamed for the abduction of his son and nephew.
HRW's Gill said the region was plagued with "increasing violence, increasing instability" for rights workers.
The Kremlin removed former Ingush leader Murat Zyazikov, whom Aushev publicly opposed, in October 2008 and replaced him with Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, with whom Aushev had good relations. Yevkurov was badly injured in an attempt on his life in June.
Monday he visited the Aushev family's house in Nazran to pay his condolences, a rare sign of respect for a rights campaigner by a leader in the North Caucasus. He vowed to take the investigation under his personal control.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Amie Ferris-Rotman; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Reuters