Death toll rises to 20 after gunmen attack Russia’s Dagestan

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The death toll from a series of brazen attacks on churches and synagogues in Russia’s mainly Muslim region of Dagestan rose to 20 on Monday after gunmen went on the rampage in coordinated attacks in two of the republic’s most important cities.

Gunmen with automatic weapons burst into an Orthodox church and a synagogue in the ancient city of Derbent on Sunday evening, setting fire to an icon at the church and killing a 66-year-old Orthodox priest, Nikolai Kotelnikov.

In the city of Makhachkala, about 125 km (75 miles) north on the Caspian Sea shore, attackers shot at a traffic police post and attacked a church.

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Gun battles erupted around the Assumption Cathedral in Makhachkala and heavy automatic gunfire rang out late into the night. Footage showed residents running for cover as plumes of smoke rose above the city.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Russia’s investigative committee said 15 policemen and four civilians were killed. According to Dagestan’s healthcare ministry, 46 more people were wounded.

At least five attackers were killed, some were shown by local media shot dead on a pavement.

“This is a day of tragedy for Dagestan and the whole country,” said Sergei Melikov, the head of the Dagestan region, who on Monday visited the synagogue and church that were attacked in Derbent.

He said that foreign forces had been involved in preparing the attack, but gave no details.

“This is an attempt to cleave apart our unity.”

Dagestan announced three days of mourning. Photos of the dead policemen were lined up on the street by red carnations.

President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to stoke separatism in the Caucasus, has yet to comment.

Dagestan is a mainly Muslim republic of Russia’s North Caucasus, a patchwork of ethnic groups, languages and regions that live in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea.

Dagestan

The attack on Christian and Jewish places of worship stoked fears Russia may be facing a renewed terrorism threat just three months after a deadly attack in Moscow.

In the Moscow attack, 145 people were killed at the Crocus concert hall, an attack claimed by ISIS.

In October, after the war in Gaza broke out, rioters waving Palestinian flags broke down glass doors and rampaged through Makhachkala airport to look for Jewish passengers on a flight arriving from Tel Aviv.

In Israel, the foreign ministry said the synagogue in Derbent had been burned to the ground and shots had been fired at a second synagogue in Makhachkala. The statement said it was believed there were no worshippers in the synagogue at the time.

Derbent, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth, is home to an ancient Jewish community and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Russian investigators said it was a “terrorist” attack but did not give details of the attackers.

Russia’s state media cited law enforcement as saying two sons of Magomed Omarov, the head of central Dagestan’s Sergokala district, were among the attackers in Dagestan. They were killed and their father was detained, state media said.

June 24 to 26 have been declared days of mourning in Dagestan, Melikov said, with flags lowered to half-mast and all entertainment events cancelled.

The Russian empire expanded into the Caucasus in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but an insurgency after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union led to two wars.

In August 1999, Chechen fighter Shamil Basayev led fighters into Dagestan in a bid to aid Dagestani Wahhabist fundamentalists, triggering a major bombing campaign by the Russian military ahead of the Second Chechen War.

With Reuters

Read more: Russia’s Dagestan mourns priest, police killed in attack by gunmen

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