Senior Muslim official killed in southern Russia

Unidentified assailants shot and killed a senior Muslim official in a troubled southern Russian province, authorities said Tuesday, in the latest in the series of slayings targeting religious leaders and other officials in the region.

Abubakir Kudzhiyev, an imam at a mosque in the city of Kislovodsk, was gunned down Monday night as he was entering his apartment building, said Roman Gubatov, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry branch in southern Russia.

Kislovodsk is located in the province of Stavropol, which neighbors the impoverished and mainly Muslim regions of Russia's North Caucasus.

A number of religious leaders have been killed in similar attacks in the region in the past several months attacks prosecutors blamed of Islamic rebels, who have gained strength in recent years.

The violence is also linked to criminal clans and seen as a spillover of insurgent sentiment from nearby Chechnya.

Ismail Hadzhi Berdiyev, the leader of a regional Muslim organization, said the slaying was especially cruel since Kudzhiyev was killed during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan. "Killing during Ramadan is a double sin and people who committed it ... will face dreadful punishment and will be condemned by all," he told The Associated Press.

In an unsigned statement sent to reporters, a local rebel leader who identified himself as the head the so-called Jamaat of Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, the troubled province that lies southwest of Stavropol, claimed responsibility for the crime and said similar attacks will persist.

"There is a list of traitors who under the guise of Islam commit dirty crimes and hamper the victory of true Islam these are people who sold out and they are the ones we target," the leader, who did not give his name, said. The statement's author and its veracity could not be independently confirmed.

Gubatov, the police spokesman, said police were chasing the suspects in the case and one officer was wounded by the attackers.