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Dagestan attack toll hits 20 as Russia launches terror probe

The Kremlin on Monday dismissed fears Russia’s historically restive North Caucasus region is facing a wave of violence after a series of coordinated weekend attacks on churches, synagogues and police killed at least 20 in the southern Dagestan region.

The attacks on Sunday came just three months after Islamic State (IS) group fighters killed more than 140 in a Moscow concert hall, the deadliest attack on Russia for almost 20 years, raising fresh questions about Russia’s security apparatus.

Moscow said on Monday it had concluded an “anti-terrorist operation” and killed five of the assailants behind the attacks in the regional capital Makhachkala and Derbent, a historic city on the coast of the Caspian Sea.

The attackers had targeted two Orthodox churches, two synagogues and a police checkpoint.

The Russian Orthodox Church said its archpriest Nikolai Kotelnikov was “brutally killed” in his church in the historic city of Derbent.

The incidents had echoes of the kind of insurgent violence that struck the North Caucasus during the 1990s and 2000s, but the Kremlin on Monday dismissed fears of a renewed wave of attacks.

Russia has been a target in recent years for IS, which opposes Moscow’s military support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and claims to have set-up a “franchise” in Russia’s North Caucasus.

 Assailants ‘liquidated’ 

 At least 20 people were killed and another 26 injured in the attacks, Dagestan’s regional health ministry said Monday.

Fifteen of those killed were law enforcement officers, according to Russia’s federal Investigative Committee.

“Of those 26, some are more serious so the first figure of 20 (killed) could still change,” a spokesperson for Dagestan’s regional health ministry told AFP.

Dagestan’s interior ministry said “a part of the bandits were destroyed on the spot and the rest will suffer the deserved punishment.”

Moscow’s Investigative Committee said five of the attackers were killed.

It was unclear if some assailants had fled and investigators said they were still working to “identify other persons involved.”

The head of the republic, Sergei Melikov, said a local official had been fired after his sons were suspected to have taken part in the attack.

He said authorities were looking into whether Magomed Omarov, who headed the rural Sergokalinsky district, knew about the attack.

Omarov was arrested a day earlier, Russian media reported.

 

In the 1990s and 2000s, separatist and militant groups waged guerrilla-style campaigns against Russian authorities in the mountainous North Caucasus following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Asked whether Moscow feared a possible return of such violence, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “No. Now there is a different Russia. Society is consolidated and such terrorist manifestations are not supported by society in Russia or in Dagestan.”

Moscow fought two wars for control of the neighbouring Chechnya region, with President Vladimir Putin touted his success in quashing the insurgency at the start of his presidency.

Russia’s Investigative Committee said it had launched criminal probes over “acts of terror”, while governor Melikov called the attacks an attempt to “destabilise” his region.

“We know who is behind these terrorist attacks and what objective they are pursuing,” he added, without providing specific details but making references to the conflict in Ukraine.

“We must understand that war comes to our homes too. We felt it but today we face it,” he said, adding that authorities were hunting for “sleeper cells” that had trained the attackers with assistance from abroad.

He said later on Monday the perpetrators were from Dagestan, Russian state news agencies reported.

After the deadly attack on Moscow’s Crocus City Hall in March, Putin initially said Kyiv had a hand in planning that assault.

 Pool of blood 

This was despite no evidence and an IS affiliate claiming responsibility on multiple occasions.

Patriarch Kirill, the fervently pro-Kremlin head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said the “enemy” was seeking to destroy “inter-religious peace” in Russia, without naming who he believed was responsible.

Melikov visited a church and synagogue in Derbent on Monday.

He posted videos showing a pool of blood in the church and the charred interior of the synagogue, completely burned out after assailants threw Molotov cocktails at the building.

Russian authorities frequently announce successful “anti-terrorist operations” targeting alleged IS fighters from the North Caucasus.

Militants from Dagestan are known to have travelled to join IS in Syria.

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