MOSCOW (Reuters/AP) - Russia claimed Friday it killed the leader of the Islamic State terror group in an airstrike on a meeting of IS leaders just outside the IS de facto capital in Syria.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a Russian strike in late May along with other senior group commanders.
If confirmed, it would mark a major military success for Russia, which has conducted a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad since September 2015.
The ministry said the air raid on May 28 that targeted an IS meeting held on the southern outskirts of Raqqa in Syria also killed about 30 mid-level terror leaders and about 300 other terrorists.
The ministry said the strike came as IS leaders 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 IS leaders were going to gather for a meeting to plan their 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 IS gathering.
“According to the information that is being verified through various channels, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also attended the meeting and was killed in the airstrike,” it said in a statement.
The ministry said that among other terror leaders killed in the raid were IS leaders Abu al-Khadji al-Mysri, Ibrahim al-Naef al-Khadj and Suleiman al-Shauah.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting IS said it could not confirm the Russian report that al-Baghdadi may have been killed.
The United States was informed in advance about the place and time of the strike, the Russian military said.
Islamic State fighters are close to defeat in the twin capitals of the group’s territory, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria.
Russian forces support the Syrian government which is fighting against Islamic State mainly from the west, while a U.S.-led coalition supports Iraqi government forces fighting against Islamic State from the east.
The last public video footage of al-Baghdadi shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of a Mosul mosque back in 2014.
Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, al-Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraqi who broke away from al-Qaida in 2013, two years after the capture and killing of the group’s leader Osama bin Laden.
Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, cast doubt on the report 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 al-Zor, in the area between Deir al-Zor and Iraq, in Syrian territory,” he said by phone.
Questioning what al-Baghdadi would have been doing in that location, he said: “Is it reasonable that Baghdadi would put himself between a rock and a hard place of the (U.S.-led) coalition and Russia?”