Beirut: Russia claimed on Friday it killed the leader of the Daesh group in an air strike targeting a meeting of Daesh leaders just outside the group’s de facto capital in Syria.
The Russian Defence Ministry said Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi was killed in a Russian strike in late May along with other senior group commanders.
There had been previous reports of Al Baghdadi being killed but they did not turn out to be true. The Daesh leader last released an audio on November 3, urging his followers to keep up the fight for Mosul as they defend the city against a major offensive that began weeks earlier.
The spokesman for the US-led anti-Daesh coalition said in a statement on Friday he could not confirm the Russian claim.
The report of Al Baghdadi’s death comes as Daesh suffers major setbacks in which they have lost wide areas of territory and both of their strongholds — Mosul in Iraq and Syria’s Raqqa. Both are under attack by various groups who are fighting under the cover of air strikes by the US-led coalition.
US officials and Syrian activists say many commanders have fled Mosul and Raqqa in recent months for Mayadeen, a remote town in the heart of Syria’s Daesh-controlled, Euphrates River valley near the Iraqi border.
The claim of Al Baghdadi’s possible demise also comes nearly three years to the day after he declared himself the leader of a so-called Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, from a historic mosque in Mosul.
If confirmed, it would mark a major military success for Russia, which has conducted a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad since September 2015.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the air raid on May 28 that targeted a Daesh meeting held on the southern outskirts of Raqqa in Syria also killed about 30 mid-level terrorist leaders and about 300 other fighters.
The ministry said the Daesh leaders were gathered to discuss the group’s withdrawal from Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital. It said the military began planning the hit after getting word that the group’s leadership was to meet in order to plan Daesh’s exit to the south.
The Russian military sent drones to monitor the area and then dispatched a group of Su-34 bombers and Su-35 fighter jets to hit the Daesh gathering.
“According to the information that is being verified through various channels, Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi also attended the meeting and was killed in the air strike,” the military said in a statement.
The Defence Ministry added that it had warned the US of the coming strike.
Syrian opposition activists reported air strikes on May 28 south of Raqqa that killed more than a dozen people.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks Syria’s war, said air strikes on the road linked the villages of Ratla and Kasrat killed 18 people while the activist-operated ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently’ said 17 civilians were killed in the air strike on buses carrying civilians.
The observatory said the dead included 10 Islamic State group members. It did not elaborate at the time.
The Russian ministry said that among other militant leaders killed in the raid were Daesh leaders Abu Al Khadji Al Masri, Ebrahim Al Nayef Al Khadj and Suleiman Al Shauah.
Alexei Pushkov, the head of the committee for information policies at the upper house of the Russian parliament tweeted that “if confirmed, Al Baghdadi’s death will be a powerful blow to Daesh. It has been retreating on all fronts, and the death of its leader will accelerate its demise.”