Russian investigators said Friday they had detained five suspects behind the assassination attempt on the Islamic leader of the country’s main Muslim region and the killing of another top cleric.
In an announcement that came quickly after Thursday’s twin attacks, investigators also said the main reason for the violence in oil-rich Tatarstan -- a republic often praised for its religious tolerance -- was the clerics’ fight against Muslim radicals.
On Thursday the Mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus Faizov, was wounded in a car bomb while his former deputy, Valiulla Yakupov, was shot dead in the region’s main city of Kazan.
The strikes, an hour apart, came as Muslims prepared to begin observing the holy month of Ramadan at sundown, with Russian President Vladimir Putin calling the twin attacks a “serious signal” to the authorities.
“According to the investigation, the main motive of the crime was the professional activity of the victims, including their ideological differences with opponents,” the Investigative Committee said.
It cited Faizov’s “tough stance” against organizations promoting radical Islam in Tatarstan following his election last year.
The detained include 57-year-old Rustem Gataullin, head of Idel Hajj, a tour operator for Muslim pilgrims; 39-year-old Kazan resident Murat Galleyev; and Tatarstan residents Airat Shakirov, 41, and Azat Gainutdinov, 31.
The Investigative Committee noted that Faizov had also taken control of “the transfer of money of Idel Hajj”, a tour operator organizing trips to Mecca for Muslim pilgrims.
That had led to a conflict between the mufti and the head of the tour operator, with the latter threatening Faizov, it said.
Investigators later said they had detained a fifth man suspected of carrying out the assassination attempt on Faizov.
According to the investigation, Abdunozim Ataboyev, a 36-year-old native of the Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan, had followed the mufti’s car shortly before it exploded and quickly left the scene afterwards, investigators said.
Russia fears that the radical Islam plaguing the North Caucasus, where militants are calling for the creation of an Islamic state, could spread to its other historically Muslim regions such as Tatarstan on the Volga.
Putin said on Thursday the attacks had sent a “serious signal” to the authorities who had not taken any steps to prevent them.
The Russia Mufties Council led by Russia’s top Muslim cleric Ravil Gainutdin appeared to cast doubt on the version that the clerics had fallen victim to a commercial dispute.
“It’s important to rule out any injustice in this high-profile case,” the council said in a statement. “Those truly guilty should receive punishment as opposed to those who could be conveniently accused of superficial, insignificant conflicts and working disputes.”
Investigators said the suspects would be “immediately released” if the suspicions proved unfounded.
More than 500 people including religious leaders showed up to pay their last respects to Yakupov at Kazan’s Apanayevskaya mosque which he headed, a spokeswoman for the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan told AFP.
Television footage showed the cleric’s body lying on the ground wrapped in green cloth before he was laid to rest on the first day of Ramadan.
Tatarstan is gearing up to host the student sporting event Universiade formerly known as the World Student Games next year, the biggest event Kazan has held since the fall of the USSR.