Russia's Islamic leader warned Wednesday of violence breaking out between Muslims in response to the suicide blast killing of one of the most revered moderate clerics in the Caucasus.
A source in the Caspian Sea region of Dagestan said Tuesday's attack on Said Afandi that also killed six others was staged by the 30-year-old widow of a radical fighter who was identified by an analysis of her severed head.
The attack came just a month after an assassination attempt against another prominent pro-government religious leader in a different region killed one and was claimed by a militant follower of the strict Wahhabist strain of Islam.
The daring strikes and militant warnings against other Muslims who work with the Kremlin has threatened to undermine President Vladimir Putin's goal of reclaiming control on the restive region with the help of loyal clerics.
Those fears were underscored Wednesday by expressions of alarm from both the head of the national clerical council and the chair of the Russian parliament's religious affairs committee as well as the head of Russia's Orthodox Church.
Chief Islamic council cleric Ravil Gaynutdin said the attacks threatened to destroy "the beginnings of inter-Muslim dialogue" along Russia's impoverished and violence-plagued southern rim.
"I call on you to adhere to a fraternal Muslim sense of responsibility before the danger of sectarian strife and the splintering of the Muslim religious community," Gaynutdin said in a statement.
The lower house of parliament's religious affairs committee chief for his part accused radical forces outside Russia of "fomenting the flames" of Muslim-on-Muslim violence that could further destabilise the country.
"Russia is coming under attack," Yaroslav Nilov told the Interfax news agency.
And even Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill cautioned Muslims not to take out "revenge" for the 85-year-old's slaying.
Afandi was widely viewed as one of Dagestan's most revered religious teachers whose funeral drew vast crowds only hours after the killing. The Interfax news agency estimated attendance at up to 150,000 people.
"It is as if they killed the president, the prime minister and the top arbiter of Dagestan all in one," said the Russian Academy of Science's regional analyst Sergei Artyunov.
The overwhelmingly Muslim republic –the largest in the North Caucasus by far—has a tradition of Sufi culture that militant and long-outlawed leaders such as the warlord Doku Umarov have tried to break with radical teachings.
Umarov's Caucasus Emirate group has for the past five years been trying to establish a pan-Caucases Islamic state that includes neighbouring Chechnya and other Russian territories such as Ingushetia and South Ossetia.
Its closely-linked KavkazCenter website on Wednesday called the slain cleric a "dissenter" who "actively promoted the Russian authorities in the Caucasus."
But there was no direct claim of responsibility for the attack.
Analysts said Afandi's death left Putin without a powerful religious authority to rely on and prevent movements like those run by Umarov from getting even stronger in Russia's most violent region.
"Putin has always relied on loyal Islamic authorities and Afandi was taking a very active stance against the Salafists," said Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Centre.
"But the young are joining the Wahhabists. The young see those who support the authorities as corrupt," the analyst observed.