At least 20 dead after gunmen go on rampage in Russia’s Dagestan region

The death toll from a series of attacks on churches and synagogues in ­Russia’s mainly Muslim Dagestan region rose to 20 yesterday after gunmen went on the rampage in co-ordinated attacks in two of the republic’s most important cities.

Gunmen with automatic weapons burst into an Orthodox church and a synagogue in the ancient city of Derbent on Sunday evening, setting fire to an icon and killing a 66-year-old Orthodox priest, Nikolai Kotelnikov.

In the city of Makhachkala, about 125km north on the Caspian Sea shore, attackers shot at a traffic police post and targeted a church.

Gun battles erupted around the Assumption Cathedral in Makhachkala and heavy automatic gunfire rang out late into the night. Footage showed residents running for cover as plumes of smoke rose above the city.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Russia’s investigative committee said 15 police officers and four civilians were killed. According to Dagestan’s health ministry, 46 more people were wounded. At least five attackers were killed, some were shown by local media shot dead on a pavement.

“This is a day of tragedy for Dagestan and the whole country,” said Sergei Melikov, the head of the Dagestan region, who yesterday visited the synagogue and church attacked in Derbent.

He said foreign forces had been involved in preparing the attack, but gave no details.

“This is an attempt to cleave apart our unity,” he added.

Dagestan announced three days of mourning. Photos of the dead police officers were lined up on the street next to red carnations.

President Vladimir Putin, who has long accused the West of trying to stoke separatism in the Caucasus, sent his condolences to those who lost loved ones.

Dagestan is a mainly Muslim republic of Russia’s North Caucasus, a patchwork of ethnic groups, languages and regions that live in the shadow of the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea.

The targeting of Christian and Jewish places of worship stoked fears Russia may be facing a renewed militant Islamist threat, just three months after a deadly attack in Moscow in which 145 people were killed at the Crocus concert hall, an atrocity claimed by Islamic State.

In October, after the war in Gaza broke out, rioters waving Palestinian flags broke down glass doors and rampaged through Makhachkala airport to look for Jewish passengers on a flight arriving from Tel Aviv.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres condemned the attack and conveyed his condolences, a spokesperson said.

Derbent, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth, is home to an ancient Jewish community and a Unesco World Heritage site.

Russian investigators said it was a “terrorist” attack, but did not give details of the attackers.

Russia’s state media cited law enforcement as saying two sons of Magomed Omarov, the head of central Dagestan’s Sergokala district, were among the attackers in Dagestan. They were killed and their father was detained, state media said.

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