(Confirms seven dead, adds details)
NAZRAN, Russia, Feb 12 (Reuters) - Four Russian policemen and three suspected rebels were killed on Thursday when a residential building exploded during a police raid in the southern region of Ingushetia, officials said.
The two-storey building in Nazran, around 1,500 km (930 miles) south of Moscow, was reduced to rubble by an explosion as special forces officers forced entry to detain a group of suspected rebels, a police officer at the scene told Reuters.
The large explosion was caused by the equivalent of one tonne of TNT, Interfax news agency quoted regional leader Yunus-Bek Yevkurov as saying.
"Three special forces officers died at the scene and another died later in hospital," the police officer said. The bodies of three suspected rebels were later pulled from the rubble, an investigator said on condition of anonymity.
"They were suicide bombers who the police were looking for," the investigator said.
Attacks by Islamic rebels against government officials and security forces have plagued Ingushetia, one of Russia’s poorest regions, for years but explosions of this magnitude are rare.
However, in January a blast blew apart a government office and killed at least eight people. Investigators blamed a gas leak but they have not yet released their final results.
The government says rebels are financed from abroad and seek to destabilise the North Caucasus region, scene of two separatist wars in Chechnya since the early 1990s.
Critics of the government say corruption, heavy-handed behaviour by the authorities and high unemployment are the main reasons behind the instability and violence.
Thursday’s stand-off began when police who arrived to check the building early on Thursday were fired on from a window, the police officer said. The building was quickly surrounded and special forces attempted to storm it two hours later.
Interfax quoted Ingushetia’s general prosecutor Yuri Turygin as saying that the two men and one woman from outside of Ingushetia had been using the building to prepare terrorist bomb attacks. All three died during the raid, he said. (Writing by Conor Humphries)