MOSCOW (AP) — Four gunmen attacked a Russian Orthodox church in the mostly Muslim Russian province of Chechnya, but were killed by security forces in a clash Saturday that also left two policemen and a churchgoer dead. The attack underscored security challenges in Russia as it prepares to host soccer’s World Cup next month.
The provincial capital of Chechnya, Grozny, is not scheduled to host any World Cup games, but the Egyptian team planned to use it as a training base.
Chechnya’s Moscow-backed regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, said the gunmen attacked the Archangel Michael Church in the center of Grozny. He said on his blog that he personally oversaw a special operation in which all the assailants were killed.
The Investigative Committee, Russia’s top investigative agency, said two police officers were killed and another two were wounded in the clash. One churchgoer also died dead and another one was wounded. The agency said the assailants were armed with guns and knives.
Kadyrov said the gunmen also carried axes and Molotov cocktails. He praised police officers who guarded the church for their courage and said the region would help the families of the officers who died.
Father Sergiy, the priest at Archangel Michael Church, said a service was being held when participants heard shots and chants of “Allahu akbar” outside. He told the Russian state RIA Novosti news agency they scrambled to shut the doors and secured the bolts just as the assailants tried to break in.
He said one parishioner who was outside was killed, while the person injured was inside the church.
The Chechen leader said three of the attackers were residents of Chechnya and one came from a neighboring region. He alleged that intelligence data indicated they had received orders for the attack “from a Western nation.”
Kadyrov, who is fiercely loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, regularly launches into diatribes about the United States and its Western allies, accusing them of trying to weaken Russia.
The Kremlin has relied on Kadyrov to stabilize Chechnya after two separatist wars in the 1990s. He has used generous federal subsidies and his feared security forces to crush the rebels. International rights groups have accused Kadyrov’s forces of extrajudicial killings, abductions, torture and other abuses.
Radical Islamists, some of whom have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group, still conduct sporadic raids in Chechnya. They also have launched frequent attacks in the neighboring province of Dagestan and other regions in Russia’s North Caucasus.
Islamist rebels also have waged attacks elsewhere in Russia, including a subway bombing in St. Petersburg in April 2017 that left 16 dead and wounded more than 50 others. Russian authorities identified the bomber as a 22-year old Kyrgyz-born Russian national.
St. Petersburg is one of Russia’s 11 host cities for the World Cup. Another, Volgograd, was the target of twin suicide bombings in 2013 that killed 34 people.