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Russian police kill nine suspected militants in North Caucasus

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian police on Tuesday killed nine suspected Islamist militants including the leader of a group behind the killing of a religious leader in the volatile North Caucasus region, Russia's counterterrorism agency said.

The Kremlin is fighting to staunch an Islamist insurgency that has spread across the North Caucasus, near where Russia plans to hold the 2014 Winter Olympics in February.

Rooted in two separatist wars in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya since the fall of the Soviet Union, the insurgency is now at its bloodiest in neighboring Dagestan, east of Chechnya, on the Caspian Sea.

Police surrounded a group of suspected Islamists in a private house in the city of Buinaksk and evacuated nearby residents before telling the militants to surrender.

"Nine militants were liquidated by special forces, including the odious leader," a statement from Russia's National Anti-Terror Committee said.

The statement said the group had been responsible for the death of an imam in Buinaksk, Dagestan. Dagestan has seen a surge in killings of moderate religious figures by militants who follow stricter Salafist Islam.

The attacks have largely been depicted by religious experts as retribution for the authorities' crackdown on Salafism, which along with corruption and clan feuds, has been instrumental in directing young Muslims into the ranks of the insurgency.

Militants led by Russia's most wanted man, Chechen-born Doku Umarov, wage almost daily violence to try to establish an Islamist state in the patchwork of mostly Muslim regions in the Caucasus mountains between the Caspian and Black Seas.

Umarov has urged his fighters to use "maximum force" to derail the 2014 Olympics. The Games are to be held in Sochi, a resort city on the Black Sea and the western edge of the Caucasus mountains.

(Reporting by Thomas Grove; Editing by Alison Williams)

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