LONDON (Reuters) - Russia's exiled chief rabbi accused the authorities of leaving Jews and other citizens vulnerable to attacks like Sunday's gun rampages by turning the state's security apparatus on Kremlin critics instead of terrorist threats.

Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt was speaking after gunmen killed 19 people in the mainly Muslim region of Dagestan in southern Russia in attacks on churches, synagogues and the police.

"The Russian authorities during the last years have used the law enforcement authorities to repress any kind of opposition to the Kremlin, opposition to the war and any movements like the LGBT movement which was declared as extremist. People are sent to prison for criticising the war," Goldschmidt said in a video interview from Berlin.

"So instead of using law enforcement and the interior ministry and FSB (security service) to provide security for Russian citizens, it's being used to eradicate any opposition to the regime. And here we see the results, that such terrorists like ISIS are able to again and again mount successful attacks against houses of worship, against cultural events."

Investigators have yet to establish who was behind Sunday's attack but ISIS, or Islamic State, has an established presence in Russia's North Caucasus region, which includes Dagestan.

Simultaneous, coordinated strikes by gunmen who are prepared to die while conducting marauding attacks are a hallmark of the Islamist militant group, which claimed responsibility for a massacre of 145 people attending a concert near Moscow in March.

"The most probable perpetrator is Islamic State," Riccardo Valle, an expert on the group, said of the latest attacks. "Islamic State has the means and capabilities, and it also has a foothold in the area," he told Reuters.


The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin expressed his deep condolences over Sunday's attacks, but it has not commented on who was to blame or why authorities failed to stop them.

Goldschmidt condemned the attack and said he was praying for the victims - who included an Orthodox priest - and their families. He said it appeared two synagogues were attacked, in the cities of Derbent and Makhachkala. Both were empty of worshippers at the time.

In Derbent, a security guard outside the synagogue was killed and the attackers tried to burn it down, he said. In Makhachkala, "we heard (the synagogue) was attacked by gunmen and there were shots."

The rabbi said the attacks marked a "continuation of the very active anti-Semitism" that the region had witnessed last October, soon after the start of the Gaza war, when rioters waving Palestinian flags rampaged through Makhachkala airport to hunt for Jewish passengers on a flight arriving from Tel Aviv.

Dagestan has a Jewish population of just a few thousand, descendants of the so-called mountain Jews who have lived there for over 2,000 years, he said. Most had left since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, with a new wave following Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Goldschmidt said the climate towards Jews in Russia had worsened as a result of the Ukraine and Gaza wars. Among other factors, he cited Russia's repeated slurs against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's Jewishness.

Goldschmidt, who is president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said there were a million Jews in Moscow alone when he first arrived in Russia in 1989, but now there are no more than 100,000 in the whole of the country.

He himself left Russia soon after the start of the war and has encouraged more Jews to follow his example rather than stay on in what he called a "semi-totalitarian" country.

"Tens of thousands of Jews left, and I'm happy they left," he said. "We are worried for all of those who are still there."

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Ros Russell)

By Mark Trevelyan