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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Ramzan Kadyrov, hardline leader of Russia's Chechen region and close ally of President Vladimir Putin, said Chechen spies loyal to Moscow had infiltrated Islamic State in Syria and were gathering intelligence for Russian air force bombing strikes.
The assertion, by Ramzan Kadyrov, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, is impossible immediately to verify. But true or not, it could have the effect of stirring distrust in jihadi ranks toward Chechens and other militants from Russia and the former USSR who have joined Islamic State.
Kadyrov, who keeps tight control of Chechnya, a mostly Muslim region with a history of rebellion against Moscow, said Chechen spies had trained alongside Islamic State fighters from the start of the Syrian war.
"An extensive spy network has been set up inside Islamic State," Kadyrov's office quoted him on Monday as telling Russia's state-controlled Russia 1 channel.
He said Chechnya's "best fighters" had been sent to Syria to gather information about militants' structure and numbers.
"Thanks to their work as agents, the Russian air force is successfully destroying terrorist bases in Syria."
When asked about the comments, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, declined to confirm the presence of Chechen forces in Syria. Kadyrov's full interview on the subject is due to be broadcast on state TV on Wednesday.
Matvey Ganopolsky, a commentator for the Ekho Moskva radio station, said Kadyrov's words were impossible to check and looked to be part of a pattern of "lies and misinformation".
Islamic State in Syria posted footage in December of the murder of a man it identified as a Chechen who had been spying on them for Russian intelligence. Kadyrov, himself accused by campaign groups of human rights abuses, denied he was a spy.
Some Chechens are known to be fighting as committed jihadis on the side of Islamic State in Syria and Moscow fears they may return to attack Russia, something they have threatened to do.
Russia launched air strikes in Syria on Sept. 30 and has set up an air base to complement an existing naval facility. It has infantry and armor there to protect its assets and has military trainers and advisers working with the Syrian army.
Western diplomats have said Russian special forces are also active in Syria; Russian authorities have been coy on that.
But state TV, in a teaser broadcast on Sunday evening ahead of the full program later this week, said the time had now come to talk about the forces who were helping coordinate Russian air strikes in Syria "at the cost of their own lives".
It showed a training camp in Chechnya, which it said was where soldiers now active in Syria had honed their skills. The footage suggested Chechen special forces might also be involved in Syria as well as the spies of whom Kadyrov had boasted.
Hundreds of heavily armed men with four-wheel drive vehicles were shown lined up, with one man shown repeatedly firing a pistol as he navigated what looked like a special urban warfare training course.
Kadyrov, a former Chechen rebel turned Kremlin loyalist, was also shown firing a high-powered weapon at a target himself. He said his men in Syria had suffered losses.
Kadyrov said in October he wanted to send Chechen servicemen to Syria to take part in "special operations" but would only do so if Putin authorized such a deployment.
Russian forces fought two brutal wars against Chechen insurgents; but the region, though it still faces a limited low-level Islamist insurgency, has now been given a large measure of autonomy within Russia and been rebuilt. Kadyrov says he is one of Putin's staunchest supporters.
Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Editing by Christian Lowe and Ralph Boulton