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Attacks carried out by 'sleeper cells' directed from abroad, claims Dagestani governor

The head of Dagestan Republic Sergei Melikov, center, visits the damaged Kele-Numaz synagogue in Derbent after a counter-terrorist operation in republic of Dagestan, Russia.
The head of Dagestan Republic Sergei Melikov, center, visits the damaged Kele-Numaz synagogue in Derbent after a counter-terrorist operation in republic of Dagestan, Russia. Copyright AP/The Telegram Channel of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia
Copyright AP/The Telegram Channel of the head of Dagestan Republic of Russia
By Euronews with AP & EBU
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More than 15 police officers and several civilians, including an Orthodox priest, were killed by armed militants in Russia’s southern republic of Dagestan on Sunday, its governor Sergei Melikov said in a video statement early Monday.

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The Dagestani regional governor visited the site of a weekend attack by Islamist militants, which killed 20 and injured another 26. 

The region observed the first of three official days of mourning on Monday following the attack – which took the lives of 15 police officers, and a 66-year-old Orthodox priest and set a church and synagogue on fire. 

20 people were killed and and 26 were injured as a result of the attacks in Makhachkala and Derbent, according to the regional health minister Tatyana Belyaeva. 

The regional governor Sergei Melikov visited the church and synagogue in Derbent and spoke with priests and members of the local Jewish community. 

Shortly after the attacks in Derbent, the militants had fired at police in the regional capital of Makhackala before they were killed by special forces. 

All five attackers were killed according to the Investigative Committee, the country’s top state criminal investigation agency.  Their identities have reportedly been established. 

While there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, the Dagestani governor said it was performed by members of Islamist “sleeper cells” directed from abroad. 

In a video statement, Melikov said the attackers aimed at “sowing panic and fear” and linked the attacks to Moscow’s military action in Ukraine without offering evidence. 

The attackers reportedly included the two sons and a nephew of Magomed Omarov, the head of the Kremlin’s party United Russia’s regional branch in Dagestan. 

Omarov was detained by police for interrogation and dismissed from United Russia. 

Sunday’s violence was the latest that officials blamed on Islamist extremists in the predominantly Muslim region in the North Caucus – as well as the deadliest in Russia since March, when gunmen opened fire at a concert in Moscow and killed 145 people

The large-scale and coordinated attack raises difficult questions for the Russian authorities about continued security lapses. 

Dagestan, which sits between Chechnya and the Caspian Sea, is known as one of Russia’s most diverse, but volatile, regions. 

There are more than 30 recognised ethnic groups and 13 local languages granted special status alongside Russian. 

According to Russian government statistics, about 95% of the population identifies as Muslim but the area also has long-standing Christian and Jewish communities. 

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Since the early 2000s, the region was blighted by violence after insurgents from wars in neighbouring Chechnya were pushed into Dagestan by Russian security forces. 

In a sign that extremist sentiments still run high, mobs rioted at Makhachkala’s airport in October – targeting a flight from Israel. Hundreds of men rushed onto the tarmac, chasing passengers and throwing stones at police. More than 20 people were hurt. 

Several factors contribute to the unrest in Dagestan, according to Harold Chambers, a political and security analyst specialising in the North Caucasus. 

He says these include sympathisers to the Ukrainian cause and Russia’s “continuous, tightening repression” in the wake of large-scale anti-mobilisation protests in September of 2022.  

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A “long-term trend of youth radicalisation” contributed to the attacks, he added, and said that authorities “were caught off guard” by Sunday’s attack.  

“The solution is still deportation and repression. This has been the Russian counterterrorism strategy for decades, and it has still allowed for such attacks as today,” he said. 

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