Armed men attack synagogues and churches in the Russian Republic

Gunmen attacked synagogues and churches in two southern Russian cities on Sunday, killing several police officers and a priest, in an apparently coordinated attack that underlined Russia's vulnerability to extremist violence.

Officials said six of the gunmen were killed after shootings in two cities, Makhachkala and Derbent, in the Muslim-majority Dagestan region on the Caspian Sea. Armed with rifles and Molotov cocktails, they attacked a synagogue and a church in each of the two cities, according to authorities and religious organizations.

Sergei Melikov, governor of Dagestan, described the attack as the latest attack “on our brotherhood, on our multi-ethnic unity.”

The precise death toll was not immediately clear. Melikov said that “more than 15 police officers were victims of today's terrorist attack,” without specifying how many of them were killed and how many were injured.

The motives and identities of the gunmen were also unclear, and no responsibility for the attack was claimed. Russia's Investigative Committee, similar to the FBI, said it had opened a terrorism investigation.

The attack was the latest outbreak of apparent extremist violence in Russia as the country fights a war against neighboring Ukraine. Four gunmen killed 145 people at a Moscow concert hall in March in an attack for which Islamic State claimed responsibility. And in Dagestan last October an anti-Semitic crowd stormed a plane arriving from Tel Aviv.

In Derbent, attackers set fire to a synagogue after shooting and killing police officers guarding it, the Russian Jewish Congress said. They also killed the priest Nikolai Kotelnikov, a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church said. The priest was the only confirmed victim of Sunday's attack who was not a law enforcement officer, although Melikov said “several” civilians were killed.

At about the same time on Sunday evening, gunmen also opened fire at a traffic police post in Makhachkala, state media reported. The attackers' targets also included Makhachkala's Assumption Cathedral, according to state media reports, and a synagogue, according to the Russian Jewish Congress.

Videos released by Dagestan's Interior Ministry show armed men on the loose in the city of Makhachkala, opening fire and forcing people from their cars. At one point, police said roads leading out of the city were blocked. It was unclear whether any gunmen remained at large, although Melikov said the “active phase” of the police response was over.

The chaos highlighted long-standing ethnic and religious tensions in Russia, particularly in the southern Caucasus region, which includes Dagestan. Patriarch Kirill I, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said it was “no coincidence” that the attack occurred on the day Orthodox Christians observe Pentecost.

“We see that the enemy does not give up attempts to destroy interreligious peace and harmony within our society,” Kirill said in a statement.

It was not said who exactly the enemy was. There was no comment from the Kremlin and authorities have said little about the identity of the attackers, although some state media reports said some of the gunmen may have been the sons of a local official.

After the March shooting at a Moscow concert hall — Russia's deadliest terrorist attack in 20 years — Russian officials repeatedly said, without evidence, that Ukraine and the West were behind the violence , even though the Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Some Russian politicians also pointed the finger at the West on Sunday, without evidence. Leonid Slutsky, a senior lawmaker, said the attacks were “intended to sow panic and divide the Russian people” and that “the blood of the victims” was also on the hands of the United States.

The attacks were the latest incident to shake Russia's Jewish community, which has faced growing threats since the start of the war in Gaza, according to community leaders. Israel's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was in contact with leaders of the Jewish community in Dagestan and that there were no known victims in that community.

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