The number of victims of attacks on churches and synagogues in Dagestan is rising, officials say

The death toll rose to 20 on Monday from two apparently coordinated attacks by gunmen in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, Russian investigators said.

Armed with rifles and Molotov cocktails, attackers attacked synagogues and Orthodox churches Sunday night in two large cities in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim region in the North Caucasus mountains.

The victims included at least 15 law enforcement officers and some civilians, regional officials said. Local health authorities said another 26 people were injured.

For hours the armed men remained at large, exchanging fire with members of the police force, according to statements from the region's Interior Ministry. Five attackers were ultimately killed, local officials said.

The attack was the latest in a series of acts of extremist violence in Russia in recent months, underscoring the country's complex security challenges as its intelligence apparatus continues to focus on the war against neighboring Ukraine.

Russian investigators called the assault an act of terrorism, but it was not immediately clear who was responsible or whether they were specifically targeting law enforcement.

One of the killed civilians was Nikolai Kotelnikov, an Orthodox priest from the city of Derbent. The attackers also set fire to a synagogue in the city.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said President Vladimir V. Putin receives regular reports about the attack but has no plans to tell the nation about it. Mr. Peskov declined to comment on the gunmen's motives.

Without the Kremlin's public guidance, many pro-government commentators on Monday attempted to present the attack on Dagestan as part of Russia's larger, lone standoff against the vague and shadowy forces of a hostile world. This narrative of national victimhood has become increasingly prevalent in Putin's Russia since the invasion of Ukraine.

The history of extremist violence in Dagestan and Russia's broader North Caucasus region, however, makes it more difficult for authorities to attribute Sunday's attacks to a vague, unified external enemy, said Aleksandr Baunov, a policy analyst at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center , a center based in Berlin. research team.

“What we are witnessing is the latest episode of the Russian regime losing control in the most diverse places, places that are often unexpected for the government itself,” Baunov wrote on Monday on the messaging app Telegram.

The rise of extremist violence in Russia in recent months has dented one of the major legacies of Putin's 25 years of rule: a brutal pacification of the restive North Caucasus region that brought security to Russian cities at the cost of empowering strongmen premises and crush human rights.

In March, four gunmen killed 145 people at a concert hall near Moscow in an attack claimed by Islamic State. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Russia in more than a decade. The United States had given Moscow rather specific advance warning about the attack.

In Dagestan last October, a mob, apparently seeking Jewish passengers, stormed a plane arriving from Tel Aviv.

And earlier this month, several men detained on terrorism charges led a short-lived prison mutiny in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. The mutineers took local guards hostage and claimed Islamic State affiliation in videos – not independently verified – posted on social media from contraband cellphones. They were killed by Russian special forces who stormed the prison a few hours later.

According to Tanya Lokshina, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch who has worked in Dagestan for more than 20 years, Sunday's attack was a “clear failure of the security services” who were too distracted from the war. in Ukraine.

In a telephone interview, Ms. Lokshina said Dagestan's pervasive security apparatus is “not able to control the situation now” because its resources and Moscow's attention are focused elsewhere.

Russian officials have tried to paper over intelligence shortcomings related to the Moscow concert hall attack by blaming the West and Ukraine, without providing evidence. And initial statements from officials after Sunday's attack suggest the government may adopt a similar tactic in Dagestan.

“We understand who is behind these terrorist acts,” Sergei Melikov, Dagestan's top official, said in a speech to its residents. He drew a comparison between the victims of the assault and Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine, saying they were facing the same enemy.

“We must understand that war enters our home,” Melikov added.

Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, in his daily press conference on Monday appeared to draw a link between the violence in Dagestan and Ukraine's separate attack on Sunday on occupied Crimea.

Local officials declared a three-day mourning period in Dagestan, a multi-religious and ethnically diverse region, and said victims' families would receive special compensation.

Dagestan's approximately 3.2 million residents are divided among dozens of ethnic groups. The largest groups are predominantly Muslim, but the region is also home to a significant Christian minority, as well as a small Jewish community, one of the oldest in Russia.

Dagestan experienced a period of intense violence in the early 2000s, a consequence of the anti-Russian insurgency in the neighboring region of Chechnya and local mafia wars. The specter of that period, when deadly attacks on law enforcement officers were an almost daily occurrence in Dagestan, led the Kremlin to reassure the country that Sunday's attack was an isolated tragedy.

“Russia today is very different,” Peskov said at Monday's briefing. “The company is much more consolidated.”

Russia's anti-terrorism committee, which coordinates the fight against terrorism in the country, said in a statement that two attackers were killed in Derbent and three others in Makhachkala. Law enforcement was said to be looking for accomplices.

Investigators did not reveal their identities.

But Russian state media and Kremlin propagandists said the attackers included relatives of a local official and a member of a major martial arts club, a major sport in Dagestan.

The investigating agency also released a video showing burnt cars, guns in pools of blood and heavily armed security service officers chasing the alleged perpetrators inside an Orthodox church. The video could not be independently verified.

Melikov said the manhunt will continue in the republic until “all members of extremist sleeper cells” are captured, which “undoubtedly were also prepared from abroad.”

Oleg Matsnev contributed to the research.

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