Russia's Foreign Ministry said it was highly likely that Islamic State militant group leader (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian airstrike in late May in Syria.
RIA state news agency ran the ministry's claim, Reuters reported. Other state news outlets published the foreign ministry's belief that they have eliminated the most wanted man in the world.
"According to the Russian Defense Ministry, it is highly likely that Daesh leader al-Baghdadi was eliminated as a result of a Russian Aerospace Forces strike on the terrorists' command post in the southern suburb of the city of Raqqa in late May this year," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov told Russian state propaganda arm Sputnik.
Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had likely killed Baghdadi in an airstrike near the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa on May 28. It said the strike targeted a gathering of some 300 fighters and 30 commanders with strikes from Su-35 and Su-34 jets. The raid lasted from 12.35 a.m. to 12.45 a.m., it said.
“According to information being checked across several channels, even ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was present at the meeting, being destroyed as a result,” the statement from the ministry to Interfax said.
The U.S.-led coalition told Newsweek that it could not confirm the reports. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, following the initial reports, said he could not say with certainty that Baghdadi was dead.
Observers also expressed skepticism. Rami Abdelrahman, director of the U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has an extensive network of sources on the ground in Syria, said the Russian reports were "100 percent untrue."
Hisham al-Hashemi, an adviser to the Iraqi government on ISIS, told Newsweek he believed Russia had got the wrong target.
“The information inside of Raqqa doesn't confirm killing of al-Baghdadi on the 28th of May,” he says. “I think the Russians think they killed Abu Abdullah Al Kosovi but they think he is Baghdadi.” Lavdrim Muhaxheri was a top Kosovan ISIS militant and the self-declared “commander of Albanians in Syria and Iraq,” who his family confirmed killed in the Middle East last month, without providing specifics.
Both Hashemi and Abdelrahman said it would be unlikely that Baghdadi would attend a military council so close to the city of Raqqa. A Kurdish-Arab alliance, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, is besieging the city, the largest the group controls in Syria.
Baghdadi, who declared the creation of the Islamic State in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, has been the most-wanted ISIS figure for the U.S.-led coalition but he has remained elusive.
The U.S. State Department announced in December a bounty of $25 million on his head for information leading to his death or capture.
Coalition efforts have also focused on the senior leaders around him, such as the group's Chechen Minister of War Abu Omar al-Shishani, killed in a coalition airstrike in May 2016.
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