The Islamic leader of Russia's main Muslim region of Tatarstan was wounded Thursday and another cleric killed in rare attacks in an oil-rich republic often praised for its religious tolerance.
The Mufti of Tatarstan, Ildus Faizov, was wounded in a car explosion while his former deputy, Valiulla Yakupov, was shot dead in the strikes an hour apart as Muslims prepared to begin observing Ramadan at sundown.
Investigators opened a murder case while the region's leader linked the attacks in Tatarstain's main city of Kazan to the clerics' work to promote moderate Islam.
"Our leaders have followed the policy of traditional Islam. It is clear that there are other movements, and what happened today is a clear challenge," said the president of Tatarstan, Rustam Minnikhanov, pledging a firm response to radicals.
"Our position should be tougher," he said in comments released by his office.
Russia's top Muslim cleric Ravil Gainutdin said that those behind the attacks were seeking to place a bomb under the foundation of "peace and order of the entire Russian Federation."
"I have to admit that a wave of violence has come to the Volga region too," he said.
The oil-producing region on the Volga River is touted by authorities as an example of peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians, in contrast to the troubled North Caucasus, where the Kremlin fought two wars against separatists in the past 20 years.
But over the past few years officials have sounded the alarm about radical Islam spreading to a region where secessionist sentiments ran high following the Soviet breakup.
Yakupov, 48, was shot on the porch of his apartment block and died from his wounds in his car.
Faizov was wounded when his vehicle exploded in another part of the city, the Investigative Committee said.
"The Toyota Land Cruiser with the Mufti of Tatarstan inside, Ildus Faizov, was blown up," it said.
"He was thrown out of the car by the force of the blast. He has been hospitalised with wounds of varying severity."
Television showed flames and smoke bursting out of Faizov's black vehicle, which regional police said he was driving.
Faizov, 49, has mounted a crackdown on extremists among the Muslim clergy of the republic of four million inhabitants.
He has said the main threat comes from followers of radical forms of Islam, Salafism and Wahhabism, whose ideology is now preached in some of the mosques in Tatarstan.
"The Salafis and Wahhabis constitute a very great danger. There are no moderates among them. They all finish one day by taking up arms," Faizov said in an interview with AFP last year shortly after his election.
Yakupov headed the education department of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of Tatarstan at the time of his death, but until recently was Faizov's first deputy.
In May, the Kazan Week website listed him as Tatarstan's second most influential Muslim, calling him the "strategist behind Faizov's policy of rooting out religious extremism."
Russia fears that the radical Islam of the North Caucasus whose rebels are calling for the creation of an Islamic state could spread to its other historically Muslim regions.
Militant leader Doku Umarov last year warned that his fighters were on a mission to "free the lands of our brothers," referring to Russian regions with large Muslim populations.
In November 2010, three Islamists were killed in Tatarstan in a rare armed clash with police.
Around half of Tatarstan's population is Muslim, but in Kazan few women wear headscarves and a huge mosque stands beside an Orthodox cathedral.
"The Salafis, the Islamic radicals have been active in Tatarstan for the past two years," said Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Centre. "This violent flare-up was expected."