MOSCOW -- The television image was chilling: A Russian hostage in Chechnya, after making a heartfelt plea for the rescue of his friends, lay down on the ground and was beheaded by an ax-wielding fighter wearing a black hood.
Moments later, the report showed a young Russian soldier, crying, pleading that he could stand the torture no more. A masked man ordered him to hold out his hand. Then he shot off the soldier's finger.
Those video clips, and others like them, have been turning up on television here in the past few weeks as Russia wages war on insurgents in its southern, Muslim territories of Chechnya and Dagestan. The fighting has been brutal, bloody and destructive -- not only on the ground, but in the newspapers and on the airwaves.
The films tend to be made by Chechens seeking ransom from people in Russia. The families being extorted have turned them over to the government, which in turn made them available to the television stations.
In this fashion, while the military has been gathering its troops and arsenals to fight radical militants who want to establish an Islamic state in the mountains of the south, some officials have been relentlessly mobilizing public opinion against the ethnic minorities who come from those regions. And if Russia has had limited success suppressing the insurgents, it has been more victorious on the psychological battlefield.
"It is not right to smear a whole nation, said Musa Geshayev, a Chechen poet who has witnessed the harassment of Chechens and other Caucasians in Moscow over the past few weeks. "Beasts, we are called, and numerous other names in this country."
Five terrorist explosions -- three of them in Moscow -- have killed more than 300 men, women and children this month, and though no suspects have been found and no responsibility claimed, officials and television and newspaper analysts have repeatedly blamed Chechens.
After the Moscow explosion Sept. 13, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov ordered that anyone without a permanent permit to live in capital had to reregister at the local police station.
According to human rights groups, this has led to a general roundup, harassment and expulsion of people from the Caucasus Mountain region in the south, who are often distinguished by dark hair and olive complexions.
Last week, a television station controlled by the mayor conducted a call-in poll, asking who should be thrown out of Moscow -- Chechens or all Caucasians, or bandits. By a 2-1 margin, callers said all Caucasians should be thrown out of Moscow.
Svetlana Gannushkina, director of the Civic Assistance Committee, said that desire was already being granted.
"Luzhkov's 'emergency regime' is a mass violation of human rights, the encouragement of national hatred and the criminalization of the police," she said.
Mikhail Serov, chief of the Moscow police passport division, told reporters that 74,000 people have been investigated since the Sept. 13 bombing, and 15,500 of them have been refused registration and ordered to leave Moscow.
Caucasians are easy to find in Moscow, gathered in the markets where they earn a living selling fruits and vegetables. Police have been arriving at the markets with empty buses, filling them with people who are taken to the station for questioning and an examination of their documents.
Some Russians say the campaign against Caucasians has been a boon for the police, who are accused of using the registrations as an opportunity to take bribes.
"You know the morals and manners of the Moscow police," Mikhail Leontyev, a television commentator, said in an interview. "You can settle this kind of matter with them the same as you can any problem."
He said Georgian friends of his had complained that they had to pay bribes of $100 each to get their registrations extended for 45 days. A driver who works at a market said that some Caucasian vendors were paying up to $200 -- plus the official $15 fee -- to get temporary permission to stay in Moscow.
Police officials have spoken of their efforts with pride.
"Have you tried to drive into Moscow?" asked Igor N. Zubov, deputy interior minister, at a news conference Wednesday, referring to widespread car checks by police. "The same is true of St. Petersburg and other cities. Dozens of people have been detained. Several armed people came directly from the Chechen Republic and were detained."
Not even the commonplace is free of suspicion. Trucks of watermelons parked around Moscow have provoked fear. First, stories attributed to police theorized that watermelons could be filled with explosives. Second, any truck is now suspected of being a repository for explosives.
"In my neighborhood, people are very frightened by anyone selling watermelons," said Ludmilla Melekhova, a teacher.
Caucasians are usually blamed for whatever troubles Moscow. They have been rounded up and shipped out of the city before, usually quietly. But this time, in the glare of publicity, Caucasians feel a visceral hatred rising against them.
Perhaps no one feels more helpless Russia31A