By Thomas Grove
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Gunmen shot dead a Muslim religious leader in Russia's Dagestan region on Tuesday in an attack likely to worsen a spiral of militant violence that threatens Moscow's hold on the restive North Caucasus.
Karimulla Ibragimov was at least the fifth Muslim leader killed this year in Dagestan following a rise in tension between moderate and more radical Muslims in the southern Russian republic.
Unidentified gunmen opened fire on Ibragimov in the town of Derbent at around 6:30 a.m (0230 GMT), Russia's Investigative Committee said. Local officials said he had served as an imam at an unregistered mosque frequented by radical Muslims.
"All three died on the spot from the gunshot wounds," the committee, a government agency that handles criminal investigations, said in a statement.
Russian news agencies said the gunmen escaped in a car.
Dagestan is at the centre of an insurgency for an Islamic state in the North Caucasus, more than a decade after Russian troops ousted a rebel government in neighboring Chechnya and restored Moscow's direct control.
Security analysts said the violence could be aimed at spoiling efforts to reconcile moderate and more extremist Muslims, and provoke a more forceful approach by Moscow which could further radicalize the population.
President Vladimir Putin, who as prime minister in 1999 sent troops to Chechnya, has made clear he favors a tough approach and will not let religious intolerance tear Russia apart.
Russia's most senior Islamic cleric warned in August that there was a danger of civil war in Dagestan, which is only a few hundred kilometers (miles) from the city of Sochi where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Putin has called for unity and has told security forces to outsmart and outmuscle Islamist militants to ensure the safety of the Winter Games and other events Russia is hosting.
CONCERNS OVER EXTREMISM
In comments published on Tuesday, the head of the Dagestan region, Magomedsalam Magomedov, echoed Putin's remarks and pleaded for an end to violence.
"We should act against extremism and terrorism with one front, work more actively, aggressively and in a more targeted way," he was quoted by Itar-Tass news agency as telling a regional anti-terrorism commission.
Efforts to reconcile adherents to the mystical Sufi branch of Islam and Muslims who practice the purist Salafi version of the faith were launched after Putin steered his ally Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency in 2008.
But security analysts say that renewed violence in Dagestan could force a more robust approach toward religious intolerance which could backfire by encouraging retaliation and fuelling bloodshed.
"(Today's attack) could be used as one more argument for the increased use of force," said Grigory Shvedov, editor of web news portal Caucasian Knot www.kavkaz-uzel.ru.
"If this approach is implemented, then the violence will definitely increase a lot," he said.
In August, a woman disguised as a pilgrim detonated a bomb strapped to her body in Dagestan, killing popular spiritual leader Said Atsayev, 74, an opponent of militant Islam.
Suicide bombers and gunmen have killed at least three other religious leaders in Dagestan this year, including another Salafi leader earlier this month.
In July, the top Muslim official in Tatarstan - about 2,000 km (1,240 miles) from the North Caucasus - was wounded in a car-bomb attack and his deputy was shot dead the same day.
The attacks raised concerns in Moscow that militant violence could spread to Russia's heartland and Putin flew to Tatarstan to appeal for calm.
The attacks have largely been depicted by religious experts as retribution for the authorities' crackdown on Salafism, which along with corruption and clan feuds, has been instrumental in directing young Muslims into the ranks of the insurgency.
Militants led by Russia's most wanted man, the Chechen-born Doku Umarov, wage almost daily violence to try to establish an Islamist state in the patchwork of mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black Seas.
(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Jon Hemming)