The attack happened in the region where the Kremlin is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency [Reuters]

At least seven police and four rebels have been killed in shootouts in Russia's Dagestan region in the North Caucasus, police say.

A source in the police force told the Reuters news agency that seven traffic policemen were gunned down on Thursday by suspected anti-government fighters in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital, on the Caspian Sea.

The source added that four rebels were also killed in the gunfire.

Three other policemen and three passersby wer injured in the shootouts, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The attack is the latest in the region where the Kremlin is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency.

Last September, a suicide car bomber killed three soldiers and wounded 32 others in an attack on a military base.

Al Jazeera's Neave Barker, reporting from Moscow, confirmed reports of the unrest.

"The Dagestanian interior ministry says that seven police were killed in a series of running battles with armed insurgent fighters. At least four insurgents were killed as well," he said.

"Authorities have for many years been fighting a low-level insurgency against armed militant fighters bent on gaining independence from the Kremlin."
   
A decade after Russia drove separatists out of power in Chechnya in the second of two wars, the mostly Muslim North Caucasus is plagued by near-daily violence.   
   
With a population of 2.5 million, Dagestan has overtaken neighbouring Chechnya as the epicentre of violence in the insurgency, where poverty and the ideology of global jihad has helped foster an armed campaign to carve out an independent state governed by sharia, Islamic law.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies