Hate crimes are on the rise in Russia, with a growing number of attacks resulting in fatalities, while authorities often exploit xenophobic sentiments for political purposes, a leading Russian rights group said Tuesday.

The SOVA hate crime monitoring center said in its annual report that 67 people were killed in ethnically or racially motivated attacks in 2007, and more than 550 were wounded across the country — a 13 percent increase from the previous year.

There has been "an obvious steady rise in racially motivated violence," SOVA deputy director Galina Kozhevnikova said, adding that the attacks are becoming more brutal.

"Neo-Nazis are out not to beat up (their victims), but to kill," she told reporters.

Racist, nationalist and neo-Nazi groups have mushroomed since the 1991 Soviet collapse, reflecting widespread frustrations with the country's dramatic economic decline.

In recent years, Russia has also seen a massive inflow of immigrants from the impoverished ex-Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia seeking jobs. That has heightened racial tensions and xenophobia, in particular among disaffected or impoverished Russians.

Foreign students, Jews, activists and other people of non-Slavic or European background have also been targeted by nationalist groups in recent years.

Rights activists say authorities have done little to combat xenophobia. Many apparent hate crimes are treated as simple hooliganism, which carries a far milder punishment. Some activists say the extreme nationalist sentiments are a natural outgrowth of the Kremlin's attempts to rebuild a strong state.

Kozhevnikova said that in 2007 Russian courts delivered only 24 convictions related to hate crimes, and said authorities turn a blind eye to ultranationalists' actions, such as public marches "as long as they abide by certain rules: do not criticize authorities, show loyalty and stick to city outskirts."

She also said pro-Kremlin youth groups are beginning to use the methods of nationalist groups. The best known such group, Nashi, has in its marches ahead of the December elections used ethnic and racist slogans such as "We won't let migrants rule (Russia)."

The government did not immediately comment on the report; Maxim Karyakin, a duty officer for the Prosecutor General's office said the office had not seen the report, though he said prosecutors had been invited to attend the news conference.

In the past, President Vladimir Putin has publicly condemned the rise of hate crime, xenophobia and neo-Nazism and called on prosecutors to do more to fight the phenomenon.

Nashi spokeswoman Kristina Potupchik denied that her organization uses racist slogans, saying that part of Nashi's agenda was to fight xenophobia.

While pro-democracy opposition groups were denied permission to hold rallies in Moscow, authorities allowed about 5,000 nationalists to march in November, raising their right hands in a Nazi salute and chanting "White Power!"

On a positive note, SOVA noted that authorities last year prosecuted leaders of several regional nationalist organizations for spreading xenophobic materials.