BOLGAR, Russia — A woman suicide bomber killed an Islamic cleric and at least five of his followers in Russia's southern Daghestan region on Tuesday as President Vladimir Putin visited another mainly Muslim area and called for an end to religious violence.
Said Atsayev, a 74-year-old Sufi Muslim spiritual leader also known as Sheikh Said Afandi Al-Chirkavi, was killed when the woman entered his home disguised as a pilgrim and detonated an explosive belt around her waist, police sources said.
In a separate incident in another part of Daghestan, a border guard shot and killed eight other servicemen at a frontier post in Daghestan, Interfax news agency said. There was no immediate sign of a link between the two incidents.
The violence followed a suicide bombing that killed at least seven police in Ingushetia in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus on August 19 and an attack a day earlier in which masked gunmen opened fire in a mosque in Daghestan, killing one person.
Russia is struggling to contain an Islamic insurgency in the North Caucasus more than a decade after federal forces toppled a separatist government in a war in Chechnya. The violence threatens to spread to other mainly Muslim regions, some of which seek greater independence from Moscow.
"We will not allow anyone to tear our country apart by exploiting ethnic and religious differences," Putin said, appealing for unity and calling Russia "our common home" during a visit to Tatarstan, far to the north of Daghestan.
"Terrorists, bandits, whatever ideological slogans they use... want to achieve only one thing: to sow hatred and fear."
"They stop at nothing — they kill people of the same faith and religious leaders, bring evil and spill blood during religious holidays," Putin said in Bolgar, a settlement in Tatarstan where Islam is considered to have been adopted as an official religion for the first time in Russia in 922.
He called for religious tolerance, describing it as "one of the foundations of Russian statehood for centuries," before giving a state friendship medal to Tatarstan's chief mufti, who survived a car bombing last month, and an Order of Courage to the widow of a deputy mufti shot dead the same day.
It was not clear whether Putin knew of the violence in Daghestan before he made his comments. Atsayev, killed in the suicide bombing, was popular among many in Daghestan, including in the government, and was an opponent of militant Islam.
Insurgents fighting to carve an Islamic state from the North Caucasus have staged attacks on officials and law enforcement personnel almost daily and have also increasingly targeted mainstream Muslim leaders backed by the authorities.
Putin, who started a six-year term in May, is eager to prevent the militant Islam that fuels the insurgency in the Caucasus from gaining ground in long-peaceful Tatarstan and neighbouring Bashkortostan, which is also heavily Muslim.
The former KGB officer became president after directing the war against separatist Muslims in Chechnya in 1999 when he was prime minister.
His 12-year rule has since been marred by violence in the Caucasus, which includes Chechnya, Daghestan and nearby areas, and attacks by insurgents from there, including a suicide bombing at a Moscow airport that killed 37 people last year and subway bombings that killed 40 in 2010.
Muslims are a large minority of some 20 million in Russia, a country of 143 million people. Attacks last week by racist soccer fans in Moscow and St Petersburg on Muslims from the Caucasus underscored potentially explosive ethnic tension.
Tatarstan, on the Volga 800km east of Moscow, has not seen anything like the violence of the Caucasus regions some 2,000km further south, but the car bomb attack on its chief mufti last month rang alarm bells across Russia.
Some Muslims in Tatarstan have expressed anger towards authorities and state-backed religious figures are restricting Islam in the name of fighting radicalism. Some moderate Muslims say radicals have arrived from outside the region.
"We are not the Caucasus. Two Tatars, even if they quarrel can sit down, drink tea and overcome their differences. We are northern people and we are more rational," said Kamil Samigullin, imam of the new White Mosque at the Bolgar settlement visited by Putin on Tuesday.
But Dzhaudat Kharrasov, imam of the Tukayev district of Tatarstan, said: "Radicalism is a problem. It cannot be denied, but it is frowned on by our people."