MOSCOW (Reuters) - Gunmen shot dead a Muslim cleric, his father and brother as they made their way to a mosque for morning prayers in Russia's volatile Dagestan region on Tuesday, federal investigators said.
The killing of Imam Karimulla Ibragimov, 49, was the latest in a series of attacks on religious leaders in the mainly Muslim southern region following a rise in tension between moderate and more radical Muslims.
Unidentified gunmen opened fire on Ibragimov, his brother and father in their car in the town of Derbent at around 6:30 a.m (2:30 GMT), Russia's Investigative Committee said in a statement.
"All three died on the spot from the gunshot wounds," it said. Russian news agencies said the gunmen escaped in a car and described them and bandits, terminology often used by Russian media to describe Islamist militants.
Dagestan is at the center of an insurgency intended to create an Islamic state in the North Caucasus, more than a decade after Russian troops ousted a rebel government in neighbouring Chechnya and restored Moscow's direct control.
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 kilometres from the city of Sochi where Russia will host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
A woman disguised as a pilgrim detonated a bomb strapped to her body in Dagestan in August, killing popular spiritual leader Said Atsayev, 74, an opponent of militant Islam. Suicide bombers and gunmen have killed three other imams in Dagestan this year.
The attacks have largely been depicted by religious experts as retribution for the authorities' crackdown on Salafism, a stricter version of Islam preached by militants.
The violence could be aimed at spoiling efforts to reconcile moderate and extremist Muslims and provoke further conflict, the International Crisis Group think tank said in a report this month.
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)