SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Cossack militia attacked Russia's Pussy Riot punk group with horsewhips on Wednesday as the artists — who have feuded with Vladimir Putin's government for years — tried to perform under a sign advertising the Sochi Olympics.
The group has resurfaced as a thorn for Russian authorities this week for the first time in nearly two years, just as Putin had been using the Winter Games to burnish his image at home and charm critics abroad with the most expensive Olympics ever.
Six group members — five women and one man — donned their signature ski masks in downtown Sochi and were pulling out a guitar and microphone as at least 10 Cossacks and other security officials moved in. One Cossack appeared to use pepper spray. Another whipped several group members while other Cossacks ripped off their masks and threw the guitar in a garbage can.
Police arrived and questioned witnesses, but no one was arrested.
The Cossacks violently pulled masks from women's heads, beating group member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova with a whip as she lay on the ground.
The incident lasted less than three minutes and one Pussy Riot member, a man wearing a bright yellow tank top, was left with blood on his face, saying he had been pushed to the ground.
"They hit me all across my body, look at my bruises," Tolokonnikova said afterward.
Krasnodar region governor Alexander Tkachev, who has been advancing Cossacks' interests for years, promised on Wednesday to conduct a "thorough probe" into the incident and prosecute the attackers. Tkachev said in comments carried by the Interfax news agency that the views of Pussy Riot "are not supported by the majority of people in the region" but stressed the importance of abiding the law.
U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf on Wednesday criticized attacks on protesters in Russia but avoided specifically addressing the beatings of Pussy Riot members.
"We continue to support the rights of all Russians to exercise their fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly, as we say all the time, and of course condemn the use of violence against any protesters," Harf said.
Pussy Riot, a performance-art collective involving a loose membership of feminists who edit their actions into music videos, has become an international flashpoint for those who contend Putin's government has exceeded its authority, particularly restricting human and gay rights. They have called for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics.
The group gained international attention in 2012 after barging into Moscow's main cathedral and performing a "punk prayer" in which they entreated the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin, who was on the verge of returning to the Russian presidency for a third term.
Two members of the group, Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina, were sentenced to two years in prison, but were released in December under an amnesty bill seen as a Kremlin effort to assuage critics before the Olympics.
The Cossacks have been used since last year as an auxiliary police force to patrol the streets in the Krasnodar province, which includes the Winter Olympic host city. Patrol leader Igor Gulichev compared his forces to the Texas Rangers, an elite law-enforcement body that has power throughout that state.
Cossacks trace their history in Russia back to the 15th century. Serving in the czarist cavalry, they spearheaded imperial Russia's expansion and were often used as border guards. Under communism, they virtually disappeared, but have since resurfaced, particularly in the south. They are now recognized as an ethnic group, but it is largely a self-identification by those who consider themselves descendants of the czarist-era horsemen.
Later Wednesday, Tolokonnikova, Alekhina and two others held another surprise mini-performance in central Sochi, this time next to the Olympic rings in front of City Hall.
Jumping up and down, one playing a plastic guitar, they sang-shouted in Russian: "Putin will teach you how to love the motherland!" A person dressed as one of the Olympic mascots joined them for a moment in an apparent joke.
Police were watching but did not intervene. A few passersby heckled them and yelled at onlookers, saying they should be ashamed to watch.
Some opponents showed up later, one dressed like a chicken and others waving pieces of paper bearing crude sexual slurs against the band.
"We are not glad to see them. They should not be spoiling the Olympics. The Olympics are a beautiful thing in the life of every Russian," said one of the men, Sochi resident Oleg Boltovsky.
On Tuesday, Tolokonnikova and Alekhina were briefly detained in Sochi, but not arrested.
Pussy Riot's two run-ins with authorities in two days, the recent detention of gay rights and environmental activists, and violence in neighboring Ukraine have cast a shadow for some spectators on the sporting achievements on display in Sochi.
Three Pussy Riot members told The Associated Press on Wednesday that they plan to resume periodic protest actions and performances in the future, though said they had no plans to target Olympic venues themselves, for which they would need tickets and official clearance, like all spectators at the games.
International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said Wednesday that any Pussy Riot protest at the Olympics would be "wholly inappropriate."
The Pussy Riot members, excited and passionate but vague about their goals, described a loose collection of ideals, including fighting against prison abuse as well as feminist, gay rights, anti-corruption and environmental causes. They spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of being targeted by police.