MOSCOW - Gunmen shot dead an Islamic cleric in the internal Russian republic of North Ossetia, investigators said on Thursday, an attack that suggests militant Islamist violence in Russia's southern Muslim provinces is spreading to nearby regions.

Shootings and bomb attacks on police and officials are a near daily occurrence across much of Russia's restive North Caucasus, but violence in North Ossetia - a mainly Christian region - is unusual.

Gunmen shot dead 34-year-old Ibragim Dudarov, North Ossetia's deputy mufti, many times in the head at point blank range as he was driving late on Wednesday near the provincial capital of Vladikavkaz, the Investigative Committee said in a statement.

The killing - at least the sixth this year of a Muslim religious leader - is likely to inflame tensions between moderate and more radical Muslims.

Moscow is struggling to extinguish an insurgency that stems from its two devastating wars against separatists in Chechnya, just east of Ingushetia and North Ossetia, and has been fueled by chronic unemployment, police brutality and poverty.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger