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Russia 'checking information' Baghdadi is dead, as US remains sceptical

Defence ministry says May air strike hit an Islamic State meeting attended by its leader, but it could not verify whether he was killed
Screengrab from a video of Baghdadi's only public appearance in 2014

Moscow said on Friday its forces may have killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in an air strike in Syria last month, but Washington said it could not corroborate the death and Western and Iraqi officials were sceptical.

The secretive Islamic State leader has frequently been reported killed or wounded since he declared a caliphate to rule over all Muslims from a mosque in Mosul in 2014, after leading his fighters on a sweep through northern Iraq.

But in the absence of independent confirmation, two US officials said US agencies were sceptical of the report. Several Iraqi security officials said Iraq was doubtful as well.

"His death has been reported so often that you have to be cautious till a formal Daesh statement comes," a European security official said, using an Arabic acronym for the group.

US Navy Captain Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "We have no information to corroborate those reports."

The air strike targeted a meeting of IS leaders and was carried out on 28 May, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Facebook. 

In the statement, the army said Sukhoi jets carried out a 10-minute night-time strike at a location near Raqqa, where IS leaders had gathered to plan a pullout by militants from the group's stronghold.

"Senior commanders of the military groups of the so-called IS military council, 30 mid-ranking field commanders and up to 300 militants who provided security for them were eliminated," it said.

"According to information which is being checked through various channels, the leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi was also present at the meeting and was eliminated by the strike."

The US was informed about the attack, the statement added.

Senior aide killed?

However, a colonel with the Iraqi national security service told Reuters Baghdadi was not believed to have been in Raqqa at the time of the strike in late May. One of Baghdadi's aides may have been killed rather than Baghdadi himself, the colonel said.

He said that Baghdadi was believed to be operating cautiously in the border area between Iraq and Syria with just a handful of close aides, and avoiding using telecommunications equipment to evade surveillance.

Another Iraqi intelligence official said the Russians had not shared any information with Iraqi authorities to indicate Baghdadi was killed. Iraq was checking the report and would announce his death if it received "solid confirmation".

Hoshiyar Zebari, a long-serving former Iraqi foreign minister and now a senior adviser to the government of the Kurdish autonomous region, also told Reuters there was no confirmation of Baghdadi's death.

Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also cast doubt on the report that Baghdadi may have been killed. He said that according to his information, Baghdadi was located in another part of Syria at the end of May.

"The information is that as of the end of last month Baghdadi was in Deir Ezzor, in the area between Deir Ezzor and Iraq, in Syrian territory," he said.

"Is it reasonable that Baghdadi would put himself between a rock and a hard place of the (US-led) coalition and Russia?"

The report is the latest on the demise of Baghdadi. Iraqi state media has suggested several times that Baghdadi has either been killed or gravely injuried in fighting in northern Iraq. None of the reports have been substantiated.

Baghdadi's last public message came at the start of the battle for the liberation of the Iraqi city of Mosul, in November 2016, when he expressed confidence in victory.

'Do not retreat … Holding your ground with honour is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame'

-  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State leader

"This … total war and the great jihad that the Islamic State is fighting today only increases our firm belief, God willing, and our conviction that all this is a prelude to victory," said a voice purporting to be that of Baghdadi.

“Do not retreat … Holding your ground with honour is a thousand times easier than retreating in shame.

“To all the people of Nineveh, especially the fighters, beware of any weakness in facing your enemy." The audio message did not refer to Mosul specifically.

Baghdadi was believed by intelligence services to have been moving between Raqqa and Mosul in recent months.

His only public appearance was at the declaration of his "Islamic State" at the Nour mosque in Mosul in July 2014, shortly after his militants took the city.

Iraqi forces are now within striking distance of that mosque.