MOSCOW (Reuters) – The top Islamic official in Russia’s largely Muslim Tatarstan region was wounded in a bomb attack and a deputy was killed in a separate shooting on Thursday, rocking a province long seen as a showcase of religious tolerance in Russia.
President Vladimir Putin called for unity and condemned the attacks, which were carried out hours before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins in Russia at sundown on Thursday.
“Law enforcement bodies are doing everything to find, expose and punish the criminals,” Putin said.
Tatarstan’s mufti, Ildis Faizov, was hospitalised after three powerful blasts targeted his car. He said he was able to get out of the SUV after the first explosion before more blasts sent flames roaring above the vehicle.
“I felt a first weak explosion in the front part of the car and immediately crawled out of the automobile,” said Faizov, who was shown on state television in a hospital bed, according to a statement on the Tatarstan authorities’ website.
Reuters television footage showed the vehicle engulfed in the blaze and billowing smoke on a wide avenue in central Kazan, a popular destination for tourists from Moscow, about 735 km (450 miles) east of Russia’s capital.
Around the same time, deputy mufti Valiulla Yakupov was shot dead outside his home, the Investigative Committee said.
Russia’s Investigative Committee called the car bomb blasts a “terrorist act”.
The motives were unknown and no suspects were named, but the seemingly coordinated attacks evoked the deadly violence that is far more frequent in the mainly Muslim regions of Russia’s North Caucasus.
Militants fighting to carve an Islamic state from the North Caucasus along Russia’s southern flank sometimes target mainstream Muslim leaders backed by the authorities.
Leaders of the insurgency in the North Caucasus have issued appeals to Muslims in other regions of the predominantly Orthodox Christian country, where Muslims are a minority of about 15 percent, to join their fight.
But oil-producing Tatarstan, which enjoys a higher degree of autonomy from Moscow than other regions and is home to a majority ethnic Tatar population, is relatively peaceful.
Russia’s National Anti-Terrorism Committee (NAK) said in a statement it suspected the attacks were related to what it called the mufti’s work “countering the spread of religious radicalism” in the region.
There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the attacks.
Faizov had been criticised over a scandal around the distribution of rights to make the holy pilgrimage to Mecca. Yaroslav Nilov, chairman of a parliamentary religious bodies committee, said Faizov had taken increasing control over the haj, according to Interfax news agency.
Police in Kazan said they had heightened security and increased law enforcement forces on the streets, the Interfax reported.
Militants in the North Caucasus, whose insurgency is rooted in two wars against separatists in the province of Chechnya since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, stage almost daily attacks across the mountainous region.
They have been blamed or claimed responsibility for a handful of large-scale attacks outside the region, including a suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport that killed 37 people in January 2011 and twin bombings that killed 40 people in the Moscow subway in 2010.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Myra MacDonald)