MOSCOW — Four gunmen attacked a Russian Orthodox church in the mostly Muslim Russian province of Chechnya on Saturday but were killed by security forces in a clash that also left two policemen and a churchgoer dead. The attack underscored security challenges in Russia as it prepares to host the World Cup next month.
The provincial capital of Chechnya, Grozny, will not host any World Cup games but will serve as a training base for the Egyptian team.
Chechnya's Moscow-backed regional leader, Ramzan Kadyrov, said the gunmen attempted to take people hostages inside the Archangel Michael Church in the center of Grozny, the provincial capital. He said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies 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 that also left one churchgoer dead and another one wounded. It said the assailants were armed with guns and knives.
The Interfax news agency quoted police in Chechnya as saying the gunmen also carried axes and petrol bombs.
Officials didn't identify the attackers, but Kadyrov alleged that intelligence data indicated they had received orders for the attack "from a Western nation." The leader of Chechnya, who is fiercely loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, regularly launches diatribes at the U.S. 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, which also include Volgograd, which was targeted by the twin suicide bombings in 2013 that killed 34 people.