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Sochi, Russia - Members of the performance-art group Pussy Riot were attacked on a public plaza Wednesday by Cossacks brandishing whips and discharging pepper spray, a day after police picked them up and held them for nearly four hours without charges.
An Associated Press video showed the Cossacks advancing on the five women and one man with whips, knocking them down and striking them. The performers had just been shown gathering quickly at an outdoor plaza in Sochi, about 20 miles from the Olympic Park, taking off coats, putting on their ski masks and preparing to perform when the Cossacks attacked.
The Cossacks roughly pulled off the masks and flicked their whips at the group. When the group escaped they tweeted what had happened, providing details and photos. They had been preparing to make a video of a new protest song, "Putin will teach you how to love your Motherland," when the Cossacks appeared and set upon them.
Pussy Riot has a storied and controversial history in Russia. Two members, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, were arrested after they took part in a protest in February 2012. They, along with other members of the group, mounted the altar of Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral and sang a protest song criticizing President Vladimir Putin and his close ties to the Russian Orthodox Church. Both women served nearly two years in prison before their December release.
Alyokhina tweeted a photo Wednesday of a young man who had joined the five women for the performance - usually they perform as a feminist collective. He had a bloodied face, an injury Alyokhina said was suffered in the attack. She posted another photo of a woman with red marks on her chest.
Tolokonnikova, who was knocked to the ground and hit with a whip, tweeted that her husband, Pyotr Verzilov, had been taken to the hospital, unable to see because of the pepper spray. And David Khakim, a Sochi environmental activist, tweeted that police detained one man for questioning but let the others go.
"We were attacked by 10 Cossacks and men in civilian clothes," he tweeted.
The Cossacks, descended from czarist-era horsemen who patrolled the borders of the Russian empire, are remembered historically for leading pogroms against Jews. Today they are socially conservative and ardent supporters of the Russian Orthodox Church. Recently, they have been revived as a sort of volunteer citizen patrol, and about 800 of them have supplemented the police providing security for the Winter Games here. On patrol, they often wear military-style jackets and high lambskin hats.
Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina, freed from prison as part of an amnesty announced by Putin, have been pursuing prison reform since their release. They also have been feted by supporters in the United States and Europe.
Sochi authorities have been determined to limit even the hint of protest during the Olympic Games, which end Sunday. Local environmentalists have been harassed. One, Evgeny Vitishko, was recently ordered to serve three years in a prison colony for damaging a fence. He said he was attempting to investigate damage to a protected forest hidden behind the fence.
The women of Pussy Riot said they have been repeatedly detained since they arrived in Sochi Sunday evening. Wednesday morning, reporters asked International Olympic Committee representatives about those detentions.
"You will have to speak to the local authority about that," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. "It happened in Sochi, but I understand that what happened wasn't in the context of any protest against the Games ."
When pressed about a possible Pussy Riot demonstration at the Olympics, he said: "What I would say is if they did it would be wholly inappropriate."