By Andrew Osborn and Filipp Lebedev
(Reuters) -A senior Russian Rabbi on Monday urged the Kremlin to ensure that rioters in the predominantly Muslim Dagestan region who stormed an airport to “catch” Jewish passengers on board a flight from Tel Aviv were harshly punished.
Videos obtained by Reuters from the airport at Makhachkala, the regional capital of Dagestan, showed the rioters, mostly young men, waving Palestinian flags, breaking down glass doors and running through the airport on Sunday evening shouting “Allahu Akbar” or “God is Greatest”.
One group was seen trying to overturn a police patrol truck, while another video showed rioters on the tarmac surrounding a Red Wings aircraft which had arrived from Tel Aviv.
One placard brandished by rioters in an unverified social media post said: “There is no place for child killers in Dagestan.”
Another said: “We are against Jewish refugees.”
Shmuel, 26, an Israeli citizen and one of the passengers, told Israeli publication Ynet that police had got passengers onto a bus which was then chased around the airport by rioters who even boarded it at one stage.
“The bus kept turning around…and people were chasing it and throwing stones. I put my suitcase against the window,” he said.
“At one point, hundreds of people came and stopped the bus. They came inside, went from person to person, and asked if they were a Muslim or a Jew. I said I was a Muslim, because I was scared to death. Fortunately, they believed me and continued on,” he said.
Rabbi Alexander Boroda, the president of Russia’s Federation of Jewish Communities, called for a tough response.
In a statement, Boroda said that the riot had “undermined the basic foundations of our multi-cultural and multi-national state” and that anti-Israeli sentiment fuelled by events in the Middle East had become open aggression towards Russian Jews.
“Moreover, we see that local authorities were not prepared for such incidents and allowed large-scale violations of law and order and mass demonstrations with open threats to Jews and Israelis,” Boroda said.
“I call on the country’s leadership and law enforcement agencies to find and punish all the organisers and participants of these anti-Semitic actions in the strictest possible manner.”
The mob converged on the airport after a message on the Telegram messaging app urged Dagestanis to meet the “uninvited guests” in “adult fashion” and to get the plane and its passengers to turn around and fly somewhere else.
The message, posted on the “Utro Dagestan” Telegram channel, did not use the word “Jew” but referred to the plane’s passengers as being “unclean.”
“We need to wait for them on the street outside the airport and catch them before they go their separate ways,” the message said.
Police said they had arrested 60 people in connection with the unrest and identified 150 of the most active participants.
Isarel’s ambassador to Russia was cited by the RIA news agency as saying that no Israeli citizens had been hurt in the unrest and that they had all been safely evacuated.
Makhachkala airport resumed normal operations on Monday afternoon, Russia’s aviation authority said, but it announced that flights from Israel would temporarily be re-directed to other cities in Russia.
‘WESTERN ATTEMPT TO DIVIDE RUSSIA’
The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin would hold a meeting later on Monday to discuss how the West is trying to use the crisis in the Middle East to divide Russian society.
The unrest in Dagestan, where Russian security forces once fought an Islamist insurgency, is a headache for Putin, who is waging a war in Ukraine and is keen to maintain stability at home ahead of an expected presidential election next year.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the violence was the result of “outside influence” and that “ill-wishers” had used images of suffering in Gaza to stir people up. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, accused Ukraine of a “direct and key role” in preparing the “provocation”.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Reuters that Kyiv had “nothing to do” with the unrest.
Zakharova referred to online resources linked to former Russian lawmaker Ilya Ponomaryov, who is based in Ukraine as a self-styled anti-Kremlin partisan. Ponomaryov said that he used to be an investor in the Utro Dagestan Telegram channel but no longer had any connection to it.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Sunday blamed the events on what he called Russia’s “widespread culture of hatred toward other nations, which is propagated by state television, pundits, and authorities”.
The unrest followed several other anti-Semitic incidents in recent days in Russia’s North Caucasus region in response to Israel’s war against Hamas militants in Gaza. Israel has urged Russian authorities to protect Israelis and Jews in their jurisdictions.
In the past few days, a Jewish centre under construction in Nalchik, the capital of the nearby Russian republic of Kabardino-Balkaria, was set on fire, emergency officials said.
Russia, which wants an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and backs a two-state solution, has tried to maintain contact with all sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict, but has angered Israeli authorities by inviting a Hamas delegation to Moscow. Israel’s foreign ministry summoned the Russian ambassador on Sunday.
(Reporting by Andrew Osborn and Filipp Lebedev; Additional reporting by Maytaal Angel in Jerusalem and by Pavel Polituk and Yuliia Dysa in Ukraine Editing by Hugh Lawson)