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Attacks on places of worship in Russia: Gunmen kill police, priest and civilians

Newsman: Gunmen opened fire on places of worship in two cities of Russia’s southernmost Dagestan province on Sunday, killing at least 15 police officers and four civilians, including an Orthodox priest.

The death toll from apparent coordinated terrorist attacks Sunday in southern Russia climbed to 20 on Monday, including 15 law enforcement officers, when militant terrorists wielding automatic weapons opened fire on synagogues and Orthodox churches in two cities miles apart in the Dagestan region, according to Russian officials.

At least 46 people were injured in the two attacks, said Tatyana Belyaeva, the minister of health for the Republic of Dagestan.

“Unfortunately, 20 people have died, including law enforcement officers and civilians,” the report said, citing Belyaeva.

Belyaeva said seven of the victims wounded in the attacks are in serious condition.

The attacks unfolded Sunday afternoon in Derbent and Makhachkala, Caspian Sea coastal cities 75 miles apart. Around 6 p.m. local time, multiple gunmen unleashed a barrage of automatic weapons on a synagogue and a Russian Orthodox church in Derbent, according to Russian officials.

Sergey Melikov, head of the Dagestan Republic, said at least six “militants” were also killed following the attacks on churches, synagogues and police posts in the cities of Derbent and the regional capital Makhachkala, which are about 120 kilometers (75 miles) apart.

The attacks took place in the republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus, a predominantly Muslim region on the Caspian Sea that has a history of separatist and militant violence. The turbulence in the region has been further fanned by Russia’s war in Ukraine, where ethnic minorities have been disproportionately mobilized to fight.

Russian law enforcement agencies told state-run news agency TASS on Sunday that the gunmen in Dagestan were “adherents of an international terrorist organization.”

Melikov described the possible involvement of “sleeper cells” and suggested the attacks may have had foreign help. “Operative-search and investigative measures will be carried out until all participants of the sleeper cells are identified, which, undoubtedly, include some that were organized from abroad,” he added.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Three days of mourning have been declared in Dagestan following the deadly shootings, with state flags lowered to half-staff, Melikov said. Financial assistance will also be given to families of the victims, according to TASS.

Russia’s National Antiterrorist Committee (NAC) said Monday that “armed militants attacked two Orthodox churches, two synagogues and police officers” in the two cities. It added that the counter-terrorism operation in Makhachkala and Derbent had ended, TASS reported.

Dagestan is home to a small Christian minority and even smaller Jewish population that appeared to be among the targets of Sunday’s attacks.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said the Derbent synagogue had “burned to the ground” and that local guards had been killed, while the synagogue in Makhachkala had been attacked by gunfire.

“As far as is known, there were no worshipers in the synagogues at the time of the attack, and there are no known casualties from the Jewish community,” the ministry said in a statement.

The Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of Russia for the Republic of Dagestan said it had launched a terror investigation into the attacks under the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation.

“All the circumstances of the incident and the persons involved in the terrorist attacks are being established, and their actions will be given a legal assessment,” the agency said in a statement.

While the investigation is underway, some local Russian officials pointed the finger at Ukraine, without providing evidence. The State Duma Deputy from Dagestan, Dmitry Gadzhiyev, said he believes “special services of Ukraine and NATO countries” could be behind the attack.

A Volkswagen Polo is believed to have been used by the suspects in the Derbent attack and was seen by witnesses fleeing the scene, Russian officials said.

A second attack occurred in Makhachkala, the capital of the Republic of Dagestan and the region’s largest city, where terrorists targeted two more synagogues and two Russian Orthodox churches, Russian officials said.

Following the attacks on the houses of worship, a long gun battle erupted Sunday night between police and the suspects in Makhachkala, according to officials.

At least six militants were killed in the fighting, Russian officials said.

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