MAKHACHKALA, Russia (AP) — A powerful car bomb exploded Monday at a police checkpoint in Russia's Dagestan republic, killing two officers and the car's driver and wounding 19 others, in what appears to have been a suicide attack, investigators said.
The attack was believed to have been organized by Islamic militants who have sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group and carried out by a man who spent time in Syria, said Rasul Temirbekov, spokesman for the Dagestani branch of the federal Investigative Committee.
The explosion, set off by two 122 mm shells, destroyed the Russian-made Lada Priori and four other vehicles parked at the police post near Derbent, he said. All that remained of the Lada's driver were fragments of his head, hands and feet, the spokesman said.
The suspected attacker was tentatively identified as a 23-year-old man who had studied in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan and spent time in Syria and Turkey, Temirbekov said. A search of his father's home in Derbent turned up materials confirming the suspect's allegiance to the Islamic State and past travels, he said.
Dagestan has become the center of an Islamic insurgency that spread across the Caucasus region after two separatist wars in neighboring Chechnya. For more than a decade, Dagestan has seen bombings, attacks on police and kidnappings blamed on the Islamic militants.
In recent years, many of the militants have proclaimed allegiance to IS, while at the same time the republic has grown markedly less violent as hundreds of them have left to join the IS in Syria. Some are now coming home with battlefield experience. While the returning fighters usually land in jail or are kept under close police surveillance, there have been concerns that the presence of radical Muslims trained in IS warfare could lead to greater instability and violence.
"Those who went to fight in Syria are now returning to the republic and continuing to do the same things — to bomb and kill," Dagestan's regional leader, Abdusamad Gamidov, told members of his administration on Monday. "We need to unite to fight terrorism and do everything to defend our residents."
His spokeswoman, Tamara Chinennaya, said 16 of the wounded remained hospitalized, three of them in critical condition.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the IS threat to Russia as a key factor behind his decision to launch air strikes on militants in Syria. He said that between 5,000 and 7,000 people from Russia and other former Soviet countries are now fighting alongside Islamic State militants.
Meanwhile, Russia's air campaign in Syria has drawn threats of retaliation from militants there.