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Russia says kills leader of Caucasus militant group, three others

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian security forces have killed four militants including the leader of a group suspected of carrying out attacks on tourists and ski facilities in the North Caucasus, a government agency said on Monday.

The suspects were killed by FSB security service officers who besieged a home in Kabardino-Balkaria province near Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest peak and a destination for skiers and climbers, the National Anti-Terrorist Committee said.

Kabardino-Balkaria lies about halfway between Chechnya, the site of two post-Soviet separatist wars that led to an Islamist insurgency in the North Caucasus, and the resort city of Sochi, where Russia is holding the 2014 Winter Olympics in February.

It said the dead men included Arsen Khandokhov, whom it described as the leader of a militant cell suspected of crimes including the killing of two tourists and attacks on a ski lift.

Insurgent leader Doku Umarov urged followers in July to do their utmost to disrupt the Olympics, and President Vladimir Putin has tightened laws aimed at curbing Islamist militants and ordered the authorities to ensure security at the Games.

According to the website Caucasian Knot, Khandokhov fought in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia two decades ago and later in Chechnya, joined militants in the Elbrus area after his release from jail and had recently become their leader.

Separately, four security officers were killed in a shootout with unidentified militants near the highland Shaitli village in the neighboring Dagestan, some 170 km (105 miles) south-west of the regional capital Makhachkala, a local law enforcement official said.

Bombings and shootings are a frequent occurrence in Dagestan, at the eastern edge of the North Caucasus, where insurgents say they are fighting to create an Islamic state.

(Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Sonya Hepinstall)

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