MOSCOW (Reuters) - The leader of Chechnya’s Islamist insurgency said he is alive and well after Russian forces said they may have killed him and he hinted he would prove it by organizing more attacks, Radio Free Europe said.
A man purporting to be Doku Umarov phoned Radio Free Europe late on Thursday to deny reports citing officials as saying he might have been killed in a March 28 assault on an insurgent base in the North Caucasus province of Ingushetia.
“They carried out a special operation. Several of our mujahedeen died. They are saying that I died, but this is not true,” he said, according to a Reuters translation from Chechen. “They’ll get an answer soon. They will hear news.”
Umarov styles himself the emir of the Caucasus and leads a persistent Islamist insurgency that followed two devastating wars Russia fought against separatists in Chechnya following the 1991 Soviet collapse.
He has claimed responsibility for major attacks in the mostly Muslim provinces along Russia’s southern rim and in Russia’s heartland, including a suicide bombing that killed 37 people at Moscow’s busiest airport in January.
Umarov has been erroneously reported dead several times in the past. He told Radio Free Europe he was “perfectly healthy.”
Russian authorities said 17 militants were killed in the March 28 operation in Ingushetia and that Umarov might have been killed, but that it would not be clear without DNA test results.
Islamist websites confirmed that a top lieutenant of Umarov, Supyan Abdullayev, was among the dead.
The proximity of the North Caucasus to the Black Sea coastal resort city of Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is of particular concern for the Kremlin, which has vowed to beef up security for the event.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Hemming