By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's most senior Islamic cleric warned on Wednesday that civil war could break out in the southern region of Dagestan after a moderate Muslim cleric was killed in a suicide bombing that has heightened religious tensions.
An ethnic Russian, who was both wife and widow of Islamist militants, was named as the bomber who on Tuesday killed Said Atsayev, 74, a prominent Sufi sheikh in the mainly Muslim region who had spoken out against violent Islam.
The murder followed the killing of a moderate Islamic cleric last month in Tatarstan, also a mainly Muslim region, and was carried out as President Vladimir Putin made a rousing call for unity and tolerance to ensure Russia does not fall apart.
"A lot of strength, wisdom and fear of God are needed from the Dagestani people to maintain the situation within the legal framework, avert a bloody civil war and not allow quarrels to split society," Ravil Gainutdin, chairman of Russia's mufti council, said in a statement.
Police said Aminat Kurbanova had posed as a pilgrim to enter Atsayev's home and detonated an explosive belt packed with nails and ball bearings, killing the cleric, herself and six others, including an 11-year-old boy visiting with his parents.
A security source said the woman, aged either 29 or 30, was born with the ethnic Russian family name Saprykina but converted to Islam and was married to an Islamist militant. Two previous husbands, also militants, had been killed, the source added.
Suicide missions by wives of fallen fighters, dubbed "Black Widows", have been a feature of guerrilla groups from Chechnya and neighboring Muslim regions in the past decade.
She carried out the attack as Putin was visiting Tatarstan, far to the north in central Russia, to make an award to the chief mufti who was wounded in an attack there last month - the same day as his deputy was killed in a separate incident.
SHEIK AND PEACE
In Tatarstan, Putin called for religious and ethnic concord to counter extremism that has raised new concerns about the integrity of a vast nation which is home to a wide mix of faiths and cultures.
"In Dagestan, sheikh and peace blown up," read the front-page headline of the Moscow newspaper Kommersant, which said 80,000 people attended the cleric's funeral after dark in his village.
Atsayev had helped broker a pact this year to reconcile some radical Salafist Muslims with the mainstream. In his statement, Gainutdin called on various Islamic factions to continue the dialogue "for the sake of our sacred religion".
Atsayev's death increased tension in Dagestan where attacks linked to an Islamist insurgency across the North Caucasus following two post-Soviet wars in neighboring Chechnya occur almost daily.
In another bloody incident on Tuesday, a border guard killed seven fellow soldiers at a frontier post before being shot dead. Some Russian media suggested the killer may have been recruited by Islamist militants, but officials said the matter was still under investigation.
Tuesday's suicide bombing shocked the Muslim community, which makes up about one seventh of Russia's population.
Though some ethnic Russians have fought alongside the Islamists in the North Caucasus, the killing of Atsayev, also known as Sheikh Said Afandi al-Chirkavi, appeared to be the first such case of an ethnic Russian suicide bomber.
Insurgents in Dagestan frequently attack government and security officials and have also increasingly targeted traditional mainstream Muslim leaders who are backed by the authorities. Atsayev was among the most prominent of these.
Putin owed some of his initial popularity to his launching, when prime minister, of a second war against Chechen separatists in 1999. He then swiftly succeeded Boris Yeltsin as president.
Now, the 59-year-old leader, who started another six-year presidential term in May, is eager to prevent the militant Islam that has flourished during the insurgency in the Caucasus from gaining ground in other regions with large Muslim populations.
"We will not allow anyone to tear our country apart by exploiting ethnic and religious differences," Putin said on Tuesday in Tatarstan, a region with substantial oil reserves.
Putin also faces political divisions in Moscow, where rallies against his domination of Russia have at times in the past eight months attracted tens of thousands of people.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Giles Elgood)