At least 20 killed in synagogue, church attacks in Russia’s Dagestan

Civilians, including a priest, among dead as gunmen attack religious buildings in Derbent and a Makhachkala police post.

People gathered at an area sealed off by police in Dagestan. There are police cars in the road. The people look worried.
An area sealed off by police after the Dagestan attacks [RIA Novosti via AFP]

Three days of mourning have been declared in Russia’s North Caucasus region of Dagestan following an attack by gunmen on a church, synagogue and police post.

The death toll from the attacks in the restive Russian region has risen to 20 people, Russia’s Investigative Committee said on Monday. At least 15 police officers died alongside several civilians, including an Orthodox priest. Five attackers were also reported to have been “liquidated”.

At least 12 people were also injured in the attacks, which took place in the cities of Derbent and Makhachkala on Sunday, the festival of Pentecost for the Russian Orthodox Church.

Three gunmen on a street in Makhachkala. They are dressed in black and appear to be firing their weapon. There are two cars on the street but they appear abandoned. The front door of one is open.
The gunmen pictured on the street of Makhachkala [Reuters]

Videos posted on social media and shown on Russian TV showed the skies of Derbent, which is home to an ancient Jewish community in the mainly Muslim region, filled with smoke and flames after the synagogue was set on fire.

Places of worship were also attacked in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan and its largest city, approximately 125km (78 miles) away, where the police post also came under attack.

The Investigative Committee said it had opened criminal investigations over “acts of terror” in Dagestan, which neighbours Chechnya and is one of the poorest areas of Russia.

“This evening in the cities of Derbent and Makhachkala armed attacks were carried out on two Orthodox churches, a synagogue and a police checkpoint,” the National Antiterrorism Committee said in a statement to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency.

“As a result of the terrorist attacks, according to preliminary information, a priest from the Russian Orthodox Church and police officers were killed.”

The Russian Orthodox Church said its archpriest Nikolai Kotelnikov had been “brutally killed” in Derbent.

Kremlin dismisses wider threat

Dagestan’s authorities announced on Monday the start of three days of mourning.

Flags will be flown at half-mast throughout the republic, RIA reported, while cultural institutions and television and radio companies have cancelled all entertainment and entertainment events and programmes.

“This is a day of tragedy for Dagestan and the whole country,” regional governor Sergei Melikov said in a video published on the Telegram messaging app.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov meanwhile dismissed the possibility of a wave of violence in the North Caucasus, as plagued the region 20 years ago.

“Now there is a different Russia,” he asserted. “Society is consolidated and such terrorist manifestations are not supported by society in Russia or in Dagestan.”

‘International terrorist organisation’

The attack on the Derbent synagogue took place about 40 minutes before evening prayers were due to start.

“The synagogue in Derbent is on fire,” the chairman of the public council of Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities, Boruch Gorin, wrote on Telegram. “The synagogue in Makhachkala has also been set on fire and burned down.”

The rabbi of Makhachkala, Rami Davidov, later told RIA that no one was killed or injured there.

Dagestan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs said 19 people took shelter inside a church in the city before they were led to safety.

Governor Melikov said the six attackers had been “liquidated”.

The Russian news agency TASS, citing law enforcement agencies, reported that the gunmen were members of “an international terrorist organisation”.

The attackers have not yet been identified.

“Tonight in Derbent and Makhachkala, unknown people made attempts to destabilise the public situation,” Melikov said.

Thick clouds of smoke in the air above Derbent where the synagogue and churches were set on fire
Thick smoke in the air above Derbent [Reuters]

“Dagestan police officers stood in their way. According to preliminary information, there are casualties among them. All services are acting in accordance with the instruction … The identities of the attackers are being established.”

The attacks come three months after some 133 people were killed when gunmen opened fire at a rock concert in the Crocus City Hall on the outskirts of Moscow. Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), based in Afghanistan, said it was behind that attack, although Moscow claimed without evidence that Ukraine had a role.

Russia’s FSB security service in April said it had arrested four people in Dagestan on suspicion of involvement in plotting the Crocus City Hall attack.

In an update on the events of June 23, the US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), noted that the Russian branch of ISKP’s Al-Azaim Media had praised “their brothers from the Caucasus” for demonstrating their capabilities in Dagestan.

“Al-Azaim did not claim credit for the attack itself, notably, and the reference to the Caucasus strongly suggests that Wilayat Kavkaz [ISIL’s northern Caucasus branch] is responsible for the attack,” ISW said.

Daniel Hawkins, reporting for Al Jazeera from Moscow, noted that Dagestan had seen unrest in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“Violence there, as the years have gone on, has died down,” Hawkins said, explaining that the region never saw the kind of conflict that engulfed the neighbouring Russian republic of Chechnya, where Russian forces fought two brutal wars during the same period.

“This sort of attack that’s coordinated and has targeted civilian religious infrastructure is very unusual and will no doubt be shocking to Russians across the country,” Hawkins said.

In October last year, hundreds of people stormed the airport in Makhachkala over a flight from Israel landing there. At least 60 people were arrested after they broke through security to the runway and inundated the area around the aircraft shouting anti-Jewish slogans.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies