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MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Dmitry Medvedev conjured the specter of decades of strife and hardline rule in the Arab world on Tuesday to warn that Islamist insurgents were trying to rip Russia apart.
In his first major comments on the unrest that has shaken authoritarian rulers across North Africa and the Middle East, Medvedev said that some countries could fall apart and this could affect Russia, home to some 20 million Muslims.
"All that is happening there will have a direct impact on our situation... This is a large, complex problem which requires serious effort over a very long time," Medvedev told officials from the national anti-terror committee in Vladikavkaz in the restive North Caucasus.
Russia is fighting a growing Islamist insurgency in its mainly Muslim North Caucasus along its southern flank, underpinned by two separatist wars with Chechnya since 1994, where rebels want to carve out a separate Islamic state.
"These (Arab) states are not simple and it is quite likely that complicated developments may occur, including the rise of fanatics to power -- this would mean decades of flames and the spread of extremism, let's look the truth in the eye," Medvedev said in comments posted on the official site Kremlin.ru.
Analysts say last month's suicide bomb on Moscow's busiest airport, which Islamist rebels said they instigated and which killed 36, shows the Kremlin has failed to quell the violence.
Young people angry about poverty and fueled by jihad (holy war) have increased their attacks in the North Caucasus over the last year and exported the insurgency from its traditional centers of violence, alarming officials and ordinary Russians.
Medvedev said this discontent can be battled by developing the poverty-wracked North Caucasus, though critics say billions of federal money already poured into the North Caucasus has had little effect.
After years of communism oppressing religion, Russia's Muslim regions have undergone an Islamic revival over the past two decades, enjoyed by regional leaders and rebels alike.
But insiders and analysts say this overlap could prove dangerous for Russia, which is home to some 20 million Muslims, or about a seventh of the population.
Rebels also took responsibility for shooting dead three Moscow tourists late on Friday at the country's most popular ski resort, Mount Elbrus in the North Caucasus.
The Kremlin chief, an ardent Twitter fan, said rather than blocking extreme views, they can be combated on the Internet.
He said the Egyptian government's shutdown of the Internet during a popular revolt "was a road to nowhere, moreover a crime," state-run RIA cited him as saying at the same meeting.
He proposed that Russia should "create its own sites... give the opportunity to address Muslim preachers and all those interested," Russian media reported.
Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Michael Roddy