(Reuters) - Russian security forces killed at least 10 suspected militants on Friday in clashes in the North Caucasus, where the Kremlin is fighting a growing Islamist insurgency, federal authorities said.
Russia's National Anti-terrorist Committee said the dead included insurgent group leaders behind several attacks in the Kabardino-Balkaria province over the past year.
A decade after federal forces drove rebels out of power in Chechnya, the North Caucasus remains plagued by violence. The insurgency is gaining in numbers and spreading in scope.
The latest skirmishes took place in southern Russia along the border between mainly Muslim Kabardino-Balkaria and the predominantly Orthodox Christian Stavropol region, Interfax news agency cited investigators as saying.
It said Russian forces acted in response to insurgents opening fire on their positions.
Violence in Kabardino-Balkaria has increased over the last year, leading analysts to suggest the insurgency is expanding beyond its usual centers such as Dagestan and Chechnya.
Attacks in or near the Stavropol region have also been on the rise but remain relatively rare.
The National Anti-terrorist Committee said senior militants Asker Dzhappuyev, Ratmir Shameyev and Aslanbek Khamurzov, as well as two female rebels, were among the dead, the Interfax reported.
It said their groups were suspected of carrying out a hydropower plant bombing last July as well as a bomb attack that brought down a cable car ski-lift and the killing of three vacationers from the Moscow area near Mt. Elbrus in February.
Rebels want to carve out a separate Islamic state in Russia's North Caucasus and install Islamic Sharia law.
They said they ordered the attack on Moscow's busiest airport last month that killed 37 and promised to increase attacks on the Russian heartland in the year before the 2012 presidential election.
The regions' proximity to the Black Sea coastal town of Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is of deep concern for the Kremlin, which has vowed to beef up security for the event.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Boyle)