MOSCOW — A senior Muslim cleric was killed and another seriously injured in what appeared to be coordinated attacks Thursday in centralRussia's Tatarstan republic.
Valiulla Yakupov, the Islamic chief ideologue in the predominantly Muslim region, was shot by gunmen several times about 10 a.m. as he was leaving his home, officials said.
The injured cleric managed to make his way to his car parked nearby, where he died, Eduard Abdullin, spokesman for the Tatarstan branch of the Russian Investigative Committee, said in televised remarks.
About 15 minutes later, a bomb went off under the car of the region's Islamic leader, Mufti Ildus Faizov, who was injured when he was thrown out of the vehicle by the blast.
No group immediately took responsibility for the assaults, which experts noted were similar to attacks in the North Caucasus that claimed the lives of dozens of muftis and imams over the last decade.
The two clerics, who represent state-sanctioned Islam, had been critical of Muslims who preach a more puritanical form of the religion that is widely labeled in Russia as Wahhabism. But some observers suggested possible conflicts with criminal elements over lucrative pilgrimages to Mecca.
Shortly after the attack, Russia-24 television news network carried a video in which Faizov could be seen in a hospital bed with medical tubes attached to his body. In a very low voice, he said that he had stopped at an intersection to make a telephone call after learning about the attack on his deputy when the bomb went off.
Faizov had a narrow escape, as the attackers obviously "counted that he would be in the passenger seat whereas he was in the driver's seat," Abdullin said to Russia-24.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that "the culprits will be found, exposed and punished."
"This demonstrates just one more time that the situation in our country is far from ideal," said the visibly tense Russian leader as he spoke to a group of officials in televised video.
Putin, who came to power as acting president in late 1999, swore to eradicate terrorism in Russia and unleashed a war on the breakaway republic of Chechnya after a series of terrorist attacks and apartment bombings in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.
The brief war propelled Putin to victory in the 2000 presidential election, but it failed to eradicate armed resistance in the North Caucasus and resulted in a string of terrorist attacks across Russia.
Chechen rebel commander Doku Umarov ordered militants from the Caucasus into central Russia to rouse Muslims to a holy war, the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported Thursday in an analytical piece on the religious situation in Tatarstan.
The report said the newcomers prevailed in 10 of the more than 50 mosques in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, which is more than 800 miles northeast of Chechnya.
"The mujahid [Muslim fighters] of yesterday are moving into Tatarstan and the neighboring regions around the Volga [river] to spread among the local Muslims the religious ideology which exists today in the North Caucasus," the report said.
Yakupov, the slain cleric, "resolutely opposed all kinds of radical movements," said senior Islamic official Rushan Abbyasov, who is based in Moscow.
"It was a heinous and cynical crime to kill a Muslim cleric on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan as he was walking out of his house unarmed to spread peace and accord," Abbyasov, deputy chairman of the Russian Muftis Council, said in an interview Thursday.
The confrontation between traditional and radical Islam is getting more intense, said Alexei Malashenko, a senior expert on Islam with the Moscow Carnegie Center, who warned against a hasty crackdown in Tatarstan.
"The latest attack — the way it was implemented — certainly looks as if the fire from the North Caucasus is coming up here already," Malashenko said in an interview. "But I also have a strong fear that if the state comes out to crack down on such communities in Tatarstan in full force, it may result in a backlash of violence that should be avoided by all means."
Another observer said Thursday's attacks may have had nothing to do with radical Islam, which he said is unlikely to dominate in Tatarstan.
"Tatarstan Muslim leaders tightly control the holy hajj quotas issued to Tatarstan for Mecca travels, and there is so much money involved in it," said Maxim Shevchenko, a television anchor and expert on Islam. "There are so many powerful organized crime groups in Tatarstan that I wouldn't be surprised that some of them would want to get their cut of it too."