MOSCOW (Reuters) - Chechen-born rebel leader Doku Umarov, Russia’s most wanted man, called on Muslims throughout the country to wage jihad against the state in videos posted on websites on Thursday.
He also urged the Arab world to usher in radical Islam during the resulting unrest.
A decade after federal forces drove separatists out of power in the second war in Chechnya, the Kremlin is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency throughout the North Caucasus, where rebels want to create a separate Islamic state.
“Spring has come, the end of February, so I ask you, brothers, to activate jihad, eliminate the enemies of Allah,” Umarov said in an eight-minute, Russian-language video posted on several insurgency-affiliated sites.
“I want to appeal to those ... everywhere in Russia where there are Muslim brothers today ... I call on you to open up the front in all places,” Umarov said. Sporting a long black beard, he was flanked by two men and was filmed in snow-covered woods.
The North Caucasus is home to half of Russia’s 20 million Muslims, a seventh of the country’s population. Experts say rebels are exporting the insurgency from its traditional centres ahead of the 2012 presidential election.
Umarov, 46, in a separate video, urged his “brothers and sisters in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries” to “create a revolution, and by this I mean instating the word of Islam... the law of Allah”.
Umarov’s words mesh with fears expressed by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev who have warned of the dangers of radical Islam being spread by Arab unrest and igniting more unrest in the North Caucasus.
Umarov, who styles himself the emir of the Caucasus, is believed to be hiding in the wooded peaks of Russia’s North Caucasus mountains.
He has said he ordered the bombing in January of Russia’s busiest airport in which 37 people were killed, as well as twin suicide bomb attacks on the Moscow metro last year in which 40 died.
Despite billions of dollars Moscow pours into the North Caucasus, President Dmitry Medvedev has said violence is increasing and political analysts say Europe’s largest Islamist insurgency is gaining membership and size.
In a sign the insurgency could spread, Umarov said he wanted Russia’s “occupied Muslim lands” such as the oil and petrochemicals producing regions of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, to join in jihad.
“This is a total war,” he said before raising his index finger to the camera.
Muslim regions such as Bashkortostan, about 2,000 km (1,240 miles) northeast of Chechnya, have experienced isolated incidents of Islamist violence but not the near-daily shootings and bombs that ravage the North Caucasus.
A series of attacks in Kabardino-Balkaria, where rebels shot dead three Moscow tourists on their way to ski on Europe’s highest peak Mount Elbrus last month, have shattered views of the province as an oasis of calm.
Reporting by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Michael Roddy