MOSCOW (AFP) - Attackers shot dead an imam and two of his relatives as he drove to morning prayers in Russia’s restive Dagestan region of the North Caucasus on Tuesday, an interior ministry official said.

“Unidentified people opened fire on Kalimulla Ibragimov’s car when he and his two relatives were headed to a Derbent mosque for the morning prayer,” spokeswoman for the Dagestan interior ministry Fatina Ubaidatova told AFP.

Ibragimov was in the car with his brother and father when they were attacked in Caspian Sea city of Derbent at around 6:30 am (0230 GMT), said Dagestan’s Investigative Committee, cited by the RIA Novosti news agency.

“The men died on the spot from their wounds. The attackers fled in a car,” said the Investigative Committee in a statement. “According to preliminary information, Karimulla Ibragimov, 49, was an imam,” the chief investigative body said, adding that it had opened probes into multiple murders and arms trafficking. The elderly man who died in the attack, believed to be Ibragimov’s father, was 82, Russian television reported.

A law enforcement source told the RIA Novosti news agency that Ibragimov did not formally have the title imam and the mosque where he preached was not officially registered.

He preached the fundamentalist IslamiC ideology of Salafism, RIA Novosti said, adding that mourners gathered outside his mosque after his death. State daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta said that Ibragimov “preached Islam of a Wahhabi type”, referring to a conservative branch of Sunni Islam that originated in Saudi Arabia and is frowned up on by the Russian authorities. The Kavkaz Centre website that airs statements by separatist leaders called Ibragimov a “martyr” and said he was an “ideological opponent of various sects of idolators in Dagestan.” The Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Dagestan, one of Russia’s Muslim leadership structures that meets with Kremlin leaders, told RIA Novosti that it did not know him.

The Muslim region of Dagestan sees near daily attacks that officials blame on rebels seeking to establish an Islamic state across the Russian Caucasus, and attacks on Muslim clerics are becoming more common.

Most often they come under attack for backing a crackdown on more fundamentalist sects, which the Kremlin sees as not traditional to the country and encouraging separatist violence.

Meanwhile, rights activists on Tuesday commemorated the millions of victims who were shot, exiled or jailed in the Soviet Gulag camp system but Russia’s leaders stayed away in a new sign of their wary attitude to remembering the crimes of the past. The Memorial rights group, created by dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet-era freedom fighters, holds ceremonies every year to remember the victims of repression under the Communist regime.

The idea originated with dissidents held in Soviet camps in Mordovia and the Urals, who held a Day of Political Prisoners in 1974, launching hunger strikes and refusing to take part in compulsory labour. “Political repression is an aspect of history that the authorities would like to forget,” Alexander Cherkasov of Memorial told AFP.

“What for us is about remembering the victims, for them is about a past that they would like to use to orientate themselves.”

In the northern town of Kirovsk, the local authorities banned an annual memorial gathering that had previously been permitted.