BOLGAR, Russia (Reuters) - A woman suicide bomber killed an influential Islamic cleric and six of his followers in Russia’s southern Dagestan region on Tuesday as President Vladimir Putin visited another mainly Muslim province and called for an end to religious violence.
Said Atsayev, 74, a popular Sufi Muslim spiritual leader also known as Sheikh Said Afandi al-Chirkavi, was killed when the woman entered his home disguised as a pilgrim and detonated an explosive belt around her waist, police sources said.
In a separate incident in another part of Dagestan, a border guard shot and killed seven other servicemen at a frontier post and was killed by return fire, the federal Investigative Committee said.
Interfax news agency quoted an unnamed law enforcement source as saying there were indications the gunman had been recruited by “bandits” - as authorities often refer to Islamic militants. The report could not be verified.
Russia is struggling to contain an Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus more than a decade after federal forces toppled a separatist government in a war in Chechnya, adjacent to Dagestan. The violence threatens to spread to other mainly Muslim regions.
Apparently by chance, the killings in Dagestan happened around the same time Putin delivered a call for unity and gave a tough warning to extremists during a visit to Tatarstan, a mostly Muslim region far to the north where senior mainstream Islamic leaders were attacked last month.
“We will not allow anyone to tear our country apart by exploiting ethnic and religious differences,” Putin said, appealing for unity and calling Russia “our common home”.
“Terrorists, bandits, whatever ideological slogans they use ... want to achieve only one thing: to sow hatred and fear,” Putin said.
“They stop at nothing - they kill people of the same faith and religious leaders, bring evil and spill blood during religious holidays,” Putin said in Bolgar, a settlement in Tatarstan where Islam is considered to have been adopted as an official religion for the first time in Russia in 922.
Putin called for religious tolerance, describing it as “one of the foundations of Russian statehood for centuries,” before giving a state friendship medal to Tatarstan’s chief mufti, who survived a car bombing last month, and a posthumous Order of Courage to the widow of a deputy mufti shot dead the same day.
It was not clear whether Putin knew of the violence in Dagestan before he made his comments. Atsayev, killed in the suicide bombing, was popular among many in Dagestan, including in the government. Like the deputy mufti slain in Tatarstan, he was an opponent of militant Islam.
Thousands of people streamed to the Dagestani cleric’s funeral late on Tuesday and the regional leader declared a day of mourning on Wednesday.
The violence in Dagestan followed an attack on August 18 in which masked gunmen opened fire in a mosque in the province, killing one person and injuring several others, and a suicide bombing the following day that killed seven police in Ingushetia, another province in the turbulent North Caucasus.
Also on Tuesday, the Investigative Committee said security forces in Ingushetia killed four suspected militants. Itar-Tass news agency cited local Federal Security Service officials as saying they were involved in the assault on police and had been planning attacks on the first day of the school term on September 1.
Insurgents fighting to carve an Islamic state from the North Caucasus have attacked officials and law enforcement personnel almost daily and have also increasingly targeted mainstream Muslim leaders backed by the authorities.
Putin, who started a six-year term in May, is eager to prevent the militant Islam that fuels the insurgency in the Caucasus from gaining ground in long-peaceful Tatarstan and neighboring Bashkortostan, which is also heavily Muslim.
The former KGB officer became president after directing the war against separatist Muslims in power in Chechnya in 1999 when he was prime minister.
Putin’s rule has since been marked by violence in the Caucasus and attacks by insurgents from the region, including a suicide bombing at a Moscow airport that killed 37 people last year and subway bombings that killed 40 in 2010.
Muslims make up about 20 million of Russia’s 143 million population. Attacks last week by racist soccer fans in Moscow and St Petersburg on Muslims from the Caucasus underscored potentially explosive ethnic tension.
Tatarstan, on the Volga 800 km (500 miles) east of Moscow, has not seen anything like the violence of the Caucasus regions about 2,000 km further south, but the attacks on its chief mufti and his deputy last month rang alarm bells across Russia.
Some Muslims in Tatarstan have expressed anger towards authorities and state-backed religious figures are restricting Islam in the name of fighting radicalism. Some moderate Muslims say radicals have arrived from outside the region.
“We are not the Caucasus. Two Tatars, even if they quarrel can sit down, drink tea and overcome their differences. We are northern people and we are more rational,” said Kamil Samigullin, imam of the new White Mosque at the Bolgar settlement visited by Putin on Tuesday.
But Dzhaudat Kharrasov, imam of the Tukayev district of Tatarstan, said: “Radicalism is a problem. It cannot be denied, but it is frowned on by our people.”
Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Timothy Heritage and David Stamp