MOSCOW (Reuters) - Chechen forces loyal to the Kremlin are on the ground in Syria gathering military intelligence deep inside Islamic State-controlled territory which the Russian air force is using to identify bombing targets, Russian state TV has said.
Chechen intelligence agents have also infiltrated the ranks of the militant group, according to Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, who said he had sent undercover agents to train alongside its fighters at the start of the Syrian war.
“According to Ramzan Kadyrov, an extensive spy network has been set up inside Islamic State,” said Russian state TV, whose coverage usually reflects the Kremlin line.
“The republic’s (Chechnya’s) best fighters were sent there. They are gathering information about the structure and the number of terrorists, and are identifying targets for bombing and documenting the bombing’s results.”
The assertions were contained in a teaser for a TV documentary to be broadcast on Wednesday on the state-controlled Russia 24 channel.
Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, declined to confirm the presence of Chechen forces in Syria.
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 armour 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 the teaser which was broadcast on Sunday evening, 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.
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 authorised such a deployment.
Russian forces fought two brutal wars against Chechen insurgents, but the region has since 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