Russia: what we know about the deadly “terrorist” attack against a synagogue and churches in the Caucasus

Russia: what we know about the deadly “terrorist” attack against a synagogue and churches in the Caucasus
Russia: what we know about the deadly “terrorist” attack against a synagogue and churches in the Caucasus

Armed men attacked a synagogue and churches in the Russian Caucasus on Sunday, killing 19 people, including four civilians, according to the authorities’ latest report on Monday. The attacks took place in the capital of the Russian republic of Dagestan, Makhachkala, and the coastal city of Derbent. The anti-terrorist operation launched in response to these attacks ended Monday morning, the Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said. Here’s what we know.

What happened ?

Armed men targeted two Orthodox churches, a synagogue and a “police checkpoint” in the Russian Caucasus, according to the Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee, cited by the Ria Novosti agency. Jewish representatives, including the Russian Jewish Congress, said a second synagogue was also burned.

In videos published by Russian media, gunshots could be heard in the streets of Makhachkala, where a large police force was deployed. The authenticity of these images could not immediately be verified by AFP.

A little later, while the situation on the spot was still confused, men opened fire against a police car, injuring one law enforcement officer. The shooting occurred in Sergokala, a village located between the capital Makhachkala and the coastal town of Derbent. Authorities have not clarified whether these individuals were the same as those who carried out attacks in Makhachkala or not.

The Russian Investigative Committee opened an investigation for “terrorist acts”, without further details. The anti-terrorist operation launched in the region immediately ended Monday morning, “due to the neutralization of threats to the life and health of citizens,” said the Russian Anti-Terrorism Committee. During this operation “five people” were “liquidated”, investigators said.

The authorities will try to find “all the members of these sleeper cells who prepared (the attacks) and who were prepared, including abroad,” the leader of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, underlined on Sunday. It was not immediately clear whether all of the attackers were killed in the anti-terrorism operation or whether some were able to escape.

Who are the victims ?

Nineteen people, including four civilians, were killed in these attacks. “According to preliminary data, 15 law enforcement officers were killed, as well as four civilians, including an Orthodox priest,” investigators said in a statement Monday.

The 66-year-old priest of the Russian Orthodox Church was killed in Derbent, according to authorities. The police officers who died in these attacks “protected the civilian inhabitants (…) at the cost of their lives”, underlined the regional leader, Sergei Melikov, in a video published on the night of Sunday to Monday on Telegram.

A total of 16 people, including 13 police officers, were injured and hospitalized, according to the ministry. Three days of mourning have been declared in Dagestan, from Monday to Wednesday, the local administration said.

Who are the attackers?

During the anti-terrorist operation which ended Monday morning, “five people” were “liquidated,” the Russian Investigative Committee, in charge of the investigations, said on Monday. Their identity has been established,” added the investigators, without specifying whether the attackers were still on the run or not.

Where did the attacks take place?

The attacks took place in the capital of the Russian republic of Dagestan, Makhachkala, and the coastal city of Derbent. Dagestan is a predominantly Muslim Russian region neighboring Chechnya, also close to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Dagestan leader Sergei Melikov wrote on Telegram: “Tonight in Derbent and Makhachkala, unknown persons tried to destabilize society.”

Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and staunch supporter of the Kremlin, assured that the “enemy” sought to destroy “inter-religious peace” in Russia.

A link with the Islamic State?

On Sunday evening, Sergei Melikov said that “unknown persons had tried to destabilize society”. “We know who is behind these terrorist attacks and what objective they are pursuing,” he later assured, in a video on Telegram, without specifying who was in the viewfinder but alluding to the conflict in Ukraine. “We must understand that war comes to our homes too. We felt it, but today we face it,” he said.

Russia has been targeted on multiple occasions by attacks and attacks claimed by the jihadist organization Islamic State (IS), even if its influence remains limited in the country. In March, an attack claimed by ISIS at Crocus City Hall on the outskirts of Moscow killed more than 140 people.

Last weekend, several ISIS members were killed after taking two prison officers hostage in a prison in southern Russia, authorities said.

Russia faced an Islamist rebellion in the early 2000s in the Caucasus, a movement born from the first conflict against separatist Chechnya between 1994 and 1996. It was defeated by Russian federal forces and in recent years, armed incidents have become rare there.

Nearly 4,500 Russians, particularly from the Caucasus, fought alongside IS in Iraq and Syria, according to official figures.

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