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Russian Muslim Leader Is Killed in Suicide Blast in Dagestan

Aug. 29 (Bloomberg) -- Islamic scholar Said Afandi al-Chirkawi was killed by a female suicide bomber in the southern Russian region of Dagestan, the second murder of a prominent Muslim cleric in the country in less than two months.

Said Afandi, 74, and six followers died and one was left wounded in the blast when the attacker, posing as a visitor, detonated a vest packed with explosives and ballbearings at his home in the town of Chirkey at 4:45 p.m. yesterday, the region’s Interior Ministry said in a statement on its website today, citing preliminary information. A criminal case was started, according to the Investigative Committee in Moscow.

“His murder may undermine the very fragile peace process in the region and lead to large-scale repressions and the further escalation of terror,” Maxim Shevchenko, a member of President Vladimir Putin’s Council for Inter-Ethnic Relations, said by phone yesterday.

The killing marks an escalation of tensions as insurgents increasingly target local Muslim clerics who have spoken out against violent extremists. At least six religious leaders have been killed in the North Caucasus since 2010, according to Interfax. The top cleric in Tatarstan, another Muslim region, was injured in a car blast on July 19 and his deputy was shot dead when leaving his house at about the same time.

‘Find and Eliminate’

Dagestan President Magomedsalam Magomedov yesterday called an emergency meeting of the local Security Council and declared a day of mourning, urging officials to “find and eliminate” those responsible for the attack, according to a transcript on the regional Interior Ministry’s website. Putin the same day paid tribute to Muslim leaders killed and wounded in the July attack in the Tatarstan capital of Kazan.

Said Afandi was the most important Sufi spiritual leader of Dagestani Muslims, with an estimated 100,000 followers of mostly ethnic Avars, according to Shevchenko. The Avars, one of 121 nationalities and ethnicities in the region, are the most populous group with a 29.4 percent share, government data show.

As many as 150,000 people gathered at a cemetery for the cleric’s burial last night, according to Interfax. A planned assassination attempt against him was foiled in 2007, Kommersant reported.

Dagestan, with a population of more than 2.5 million, is wedged between the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Chechnya, where federal forces fought two wars against separatists after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It has more killings in armed conflict than any other region in the North Caucasus, according to Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based research group. There were 378 people killed in 2010 and 413 in 2011, it said.

‘Dramatic Increase’

The bombing “may lead to a dramatic increase in violence,” said Grigory Shvedov, head of Caucasian Knot. “He was a religious figure with the biggest political influence as among his followers were hundreds of senior officials in Dagestan.”

No one has claimed responsibility for the suicide attack. The rebel website Kavkaz Center, often used to publish statements on behalf of the separatists fighting the federal government in the region, described Said Afandi as a “conduit of Russian power in the Caucasus, who initiated terror against Muslims.”

The victims of the bombing in Chirkey, located in the Buinaksk district southeast of the regional capital, Makhachkala, included a 12-year-old child, Dagestan’s Interior Ministry said. The attacker was identified as an ethnic Russian convert to Islam and the wife of a militant, according to Interfax.

“Terrorists, bandits, whatever ideological slogans they use to cover up, always hit from behind the corner, always cynically,” Putin said in Kazan yesterday. “They want to achieve only one thing -- to sow hatred and fear. They won’t succeed. Not here in Tatarstan and the Volga region, not in the North Caucasus, not in any region of our big country.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at iarkhipov@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Balazs Penz at bpenz@bloomberg.net

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