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Gunmen killed more than a dozen people in an attack in southern Russia

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

At least 19 people are dead and 25 more wounded after armed gunmen launched attacks on several religious sites in Southern Russia.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This is a region called Dagestan, which is a majority Muslim region, home to a diverse group of ethnicities and religious faiths and also home to Islamist extremism.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now to discuss it is NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. So, Charles, what have you learned about this attack and how it happened?

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning. You know, authorities here say these attacks were well planned and coordinated, taking place near simultaneously in Dagestan's capital of Makhachkala, as well as in the coastal city of Derbent. That's just to the south on the Caspian Sea.

Within minutes, gunmen opened fire on a synagogue, which subsequently caught fire. It's worth noting that Dagestan has a small but ancient Jewish presence. The gunmen then also attacked a police traffic post and two orthodox Christian churches, killing a local priest. A witness video showed police subsequently engaged in a series of firefights with the attackers. Local officials say officers make up the majority of confirmed casualties thus far, even though news reports suggest a number of dead and injured may grow.

MARTÍNEZ: Wow. All right. The gunmen - have they been apprehended?

MAYNES: Well, as you might imagine, there's been quite a bit of confusion and conflicting reports over the past several hours. Here's what we do know. There was a manhunt for the gunmen last night with all roads to Makhachkala - that's the capital, again - sealed off by security forces and reports that several other gunmen had barricaded themselves in a building in Derbent.

Now, as of this morning, authorities haven't provided any details other than to say that the active phase of a counterterrorist operation had ended. They say that five - some say perhaps six - of the attackers have been liquidated, while not answering the more key question out of how many to begin with.

MARTÍNEZ: So how are authorities then presenting theories as to who's behind this and why was - it happened?

MAYNES: Well, as you and Steve mentioned in the intro, you know, Dagestan is home to this - has this history of Islamic fundamentalism, as does most of Russia's Northern Caucasus region. And the fact that these attackers struck a church and a synagogue in particular will raise eyebrows.

There was an ugly episode in Dagestan last fall. This is - was in the wake of the start of the war in Gaza, where rioters rampaged through Makhachkala's airport looking for Jewish passengers on a flight from Tel Aviv.

That said, this morning, the governor of Dagestan, Sergei Melikov, issued a video on social media saying the gunman's goal was to divide Russian society. And he suggested authorities knew who ordered the assault but are keeping it under wraps for now. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEI MELIKOV: (Non-English language spoken).

MAYNES: So here, Melikov says investigators are working to identify all the participants in the attack, which he says, without question, was in part prepared from abroad.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, that sounds a little like how Russian authorities reacted to that attack on a concert hall in Moscow earlier this year.

MAYNES: You know, it does. It does. And to remind people, this was when several gunmen stormed a concert venue in Moscow and set fire to the premises. Over 140 people died. A branch of the Islamic state later claimed responsibility. But Russian authorities, including President Vladimir Putin, repeatedly insisted Ukraine and the West instigated the attack, paying these men to slaughter Russian civilians.

And so with this case in Dagestan, it's still early days, but we'll be watching to see if authorities take a similar line. All we know for sure is that Russia's investigative committee has launched a criminal investigation into what they're calling acts of terror.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, Charles Maynes in Moscow. Thank you very much.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "MESA REDONDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.