Moscow (AFP) - Three suicide bombers blew themselves up on Monday as they tried to storm a rural police station in a usually peaceful region of southern Russia, causing no other casualties, police said.
After the attack in the village of Novoselitskoye in the southern Stavropol region, regional authorities ordered the tightening of security measures at kindergartens, schools and hospitals.
Russia's North Caucasus -- including Chechnya, where the Kremlin has fought two wars against separatists over the past 20 years -- has been gripped by nearly daily violence for years due to a simmering Islamist insurgency there.
But attacks in the Stavropol region -- close to the Muslim-majority North Caucasus -- are rare.
"We were holding a meeting in the morning when five explosions went off," Sergei Karamyshev, a senior local police official, told AFP.
"Three people blew themselves up after an officer on duty at the entrance blocked the door to the building."
He said three of the explosions were caused by the suicide bombers, while a fourth was caused by a grenade. The source of the fifth blast was not immediately clear, he added.
"There are only fragments of flesh over there," said Karamyshev.
A regional police spokeswoman said however that only one of the attackers had detonated his explosive charge, while the other two assailants were killed by "return fire."
"They were shooting at the building," spokeswoman Natalya Tyncherova told AFP.
Investigators identified the three attackers as residents of the nearby village of Kitayevskoe: Zaur Akayev, in his early 30s; Ramazan Khaibulayev in his 20s and Isai Abdulatipov who was born in 1996.
Investigators said the three men tried to storm the police station and detonated grenades, adding that the building and nearby cars were damaged and that they had opened a criminal probe.
The lifenews.ru news outlet, known for its close ties to police and security agencies, posted an eyewitness video shot after the attack, showing the police station with an alarm sounding and what appear to be fragments of bodies outside.
"There were five explosions and a volley of automatic gunfire," a male witness can be heard saying in the video. "There's no one here, everyone has run away in a panic."
- 'Terrorist attack?' -
In a sign of the significance of the incident, deputy chairman of the Moscow-based Investigative Committee, which probes major crimes, visited the scene.
President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said efforts were under way "to understand what was behind" the attack, which is likely to be seen as a blow to the Kremlin's prestige.
"Was this a terrorist threat or gangsters? Without knowing the circumstances it is hard to say," Peskov told reporters during a conference call.
The Islamic State group claimed responsibility in December for a deadly shooting in Derbent, a city in the North Caucasus republic of Dagestan with an ancient citadel that is popular with tourists.
IS has vowed revenge against Russia after Putin launched a bombing campaign in Syria last September.
The Syrian army backed by Russian forces recently scored a hugely symbolic victory over IS jihadists in the ancient city of Palmyra and is preparing to retake control of the northern city of Aleppo from rebels fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
In 2009, the Kremlin formally cancelled a decade-long counter-terrorism regime in Chechnya, claiming a semblance of normality had returned to the war-scarred region.