Gunmen burst into a sauna and killed seven women today as Russian police and separatist militants fought battles across the North Caucasus.

The women, all employees at the sauna, were killed after a gang shot dead four traffic policemen at a nearby checkpoint in the town of Buinaksk in Dagestan. Police said that as many as 15 gunmen began shooting from a minibus as as they approached the checkpoint.

"Four died when they attacked the traffic police. Around the same time they entered the sauna and shot seven women," a police spokesman said. Security services began house-to-house searches for the gunmen and claimed to have identified the gang leader and several other members.

Some reports described the women as prostitutes who had been targeted by militants determined to impose strict Islamist values in the region, but this could not be confirmed. Saunas are a common form of relaxation in Russia.

Police said that they had killed three suspected militants in exchanges of fire after a car refused to stop at a roadblock in the Dagestani village of Sabnava. Two policemen were wounded in separate sniper attacks in the regional capital Makhachkala, and officers were called to defuse a bomb on a railway line into the city.

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