Gunmen attack church in Russia's Chechnya region, killing 3

MOSCOW (NYTIMES) - Four gunmen stormed a church in Russia's predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya on Saturday (May 19), killing at least one churchgoer and two police officers, according to authorities.

All the attackers were killed in an exchange of gunfire with the police at the Archangel Michael Church in the centre of Grozny, the capital, according to the Investigative Committee of Russia, an internal security agency.

The gunmen initially took hostages, the leader of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov said, adding that the assailants were armed with knives, hatchets and homemade explosives as well.

It was not immediately clear whether there was any link between the attackers and extremist groups. But Chechnya has experienced attacks by Islamist extremists before, including those who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Women and men from majority Muslim areas of Russia, including Chechnya, have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the ISIS there, and dozens have begun to return as the group has lost most of its territory.

The restive region of Chechnya was the site of two separatist wars in the 1990s. Following those conflicts, Mr Kadyrov, with the backing of the Russian government, has cracked down on dissent. Human rights groups have accused his forces of abuses including torture, kidnapping and murder.

Grozny once had a substantial ethnic Russian, Christian population but most of them fled during the wars. The church that was attacked on Saturday is in the centre of the city and was at the heart of some of the battles of the 1990s.

Mr Kadyrov condemned Saturday's assault and said he immediately went to the church and was with the police as they responded. He vowed to crush anyone who attempted attacks in his region.

"I once again very seriously declare that you can try to commit any actions aimed at undermining the security of the residents of Grozny and other settlements," he said. "But anyone who makes the first step along this path will be immediately destroyed."

He made the statement via the Telegram messaging app, where he regularly posts information after being kicked off both Instagram and Facebook after he was added to a US sanctions list.

Attacks on churches in Chechnya are rare. There are not many churches in the region, and they are protected by Mr Kadyrov's forces.