Priest, 15 security personnel killed in attacks on synagogue, church in Russia's Dagestan

Derbent occupies the narrow gateway between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. Photo by lnur Neciyev/Wikimedia Commons

June 23 (UPI) -- At least 15 police officers, a priest and an unknown number of civilians died in an attack on two Orthodox churches and a synagogue in Russia's majority Muslim Republic of Dagestan, the national counterterrorism agency and police said Sunday.

The attacks were in the cities Derbent and Makhachkala. Also, a police traffic stop in Makhachkala was hit. The region is in the southernmost tip of Russia, about 2,000 miles south of Moscow, along the Caspian Sea.

Attackers used automatic rifles around 5:50 p.m. local time at the synagogue in Derbent, just 40 minutes before evening prayers, then drove away in a white Volkswagen Polo car, officials reported. The synagogue then was set on fire by "terrorists," according to TASS News Agency.

Six of the attackers are dead, TASS reported.

"Further operative and search and investigative action will continue until detecting all the participants of sleeper cells, which were definitely prepared in particular from abroad," Sergey Melikov, head of the Dagestan Republic, said.

Father Nikolai, a 66-year-old priest at the Orthodox church, died in a knife attack, Shamil Khadulaev, the chairman of Dagestan's Public Monitoring Commission, said in a report by TASS.

Priests locked themselves inside the church and were waiting for help.

A security guard at the Orthodox church in Makhachkala was also killed, Khadulaev said.

"As far as is known, there were no worshipers in the synagogues at the time of the attack, and there are no known casualties from the Jewish community," according to a statement from the Israeli foreign ministry.

Elsewhere, a group of unknown assailants attacked the traffic police post in the regional capital of Makhachkala.

Residents of Makhachkala were asked to remain in their homes.

"The Russian Jewish Congress offers condolences to the families of those killed and wishes the soonest recovery to those hurt," it said in a statement. "We call on the authorities to take the toughest measures against the bandits and murderers who committed this atrocious crime."

A terror investigation has been launched under the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, the Investigative Directorate of the Investigative Committee of Russia for the Republic of Dagestan said.

"All the circumstances of the incident and the persons involved in the terrorist attacks are being established, and their actions will be given a legal assessment," the investigative directorate statement said.

More than 3.1 million people live in the republic, which is ethnically diverse.

"The Muftiyat of the Republic of Dagestan expresses sincere words of condolences to the families and friends of the victims," the centralized Islamic organization said in a statment on Telegram.

"We mourn with you and ask the Almighty to grant you patience. We also ask the Merciful Lord to grant speedy healing to all those affected."

Three days of mourning have been declared in Dagestan, TASS reported.