GROZNY, Russia (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed four policemen in Chechnya on Tuesday, pressing an Islamist challenge to Russian control of the north Caucasus region a day after a visit by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
But in a sign of the widening gulf between Islamist fighters and more moderate Chechen separatists, a rebel leader who styles himself the “Emir of the Caucasus” ordered the murder of Akhmed Zakayev, a rival living in exile in London.
A suicide bomber attacked a group of policemen in the village of Mesker-Yurt, 20 km (12 miles) from Chechnya’s capital Grozny, while they waited for their car to be washed, a source in local law enforcement agencies told Reuters.
The attack followed a day after Putin visited Chechnya, showing support for hardline local chief Ramzan Kadyrov and demonstrating Russia’s determination to tackle a wave of violence in this mountainous southern border area.
“An unidentified person ran toward them and detonated a bomb,” the Prosecutor-General’s main investigations unit said in a statement. “As a result of the explosion, four policemen were killed. Another policeman and two civilians were wounded.”
What officials said was the bomber’s severed head lay beside a detached hand in a pool of blood, flies crawling through its black cropped hair.
A tide of attacks buffeting Dagestan and Ingushetia as well as Chechnya has raised concerns the Kremlin could lose control of swathes of the mainly Muslim North Caucasus. Only months ago it declared the end of an emergency in Chechnya, where Moscow has fought two wars to reestablish its control.
Rebel Doku Umarov, who has declared himself the head of a north Caucasus “emirate,” said in a letter on the www.islamdin.com website that a Sharia court had sentenced rival Zakayev to death for recognizing the authority of Kadyrov -- a man accused by rights groups of tolerating brutal measures in pursuing rebels.
“Public remarks show that he (Zakayev) has fallen away from Islam,” the website said, quoting a letter it said it had received from Umarov.
“The court has ruled that the killing of this apostate is a duty for Muslims,” it said, quoting Umarov.
Zakayev represents the more moderate wing of the rebel movement, which came more strongly under Islamist influence after Russia launched its second war in 1999, and has opposed Umarov’s calls for attacks on Russian civilian targets.
Zakayev, 50, fought Russia as a senior rebel commander in two wars with Moscow in 1994-2000. After Russia regained control of the province, he fled to Europe and acted as an official rebel envoy until 2007.
Russia has tried to extradite Zakayev for 13 alleged crimes including kidnapping and murder, but a British court rejected the request in 2003, sparking a diplomatic row.
Kadyrov said last month that he would welcome Zakayev’s return and possibly offer him a job in the regional culture ministry. But there were no indications Russia was ready to drop charges against him.
Additional reporting by Ludmila Danilova and Darya Zhdanova; writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman, editing by Ralph Boulton