MOSCOW • Russia is verifying intelligence that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed near Raqqa, Syria, during a bombing raid conducted by its forces last month, its Defence Ministry said yesterday.
But a spokesman for the United States-led coalition against ISIS said he could not verify that al-Baghdadi had been killed. "We cannot confirm," said Colonel John Dorrian.
Al-Baghdadi, who has a US$25 million (S$34.6 million) bounty on his head, could be among some 30 ISIS commanders killed in the attack on an ISIS meeting in the early hours of May 28, the Russian Defence Ministry said.
Reports of al-Baghdadi's death "are being verified by various channels", it said, without elaborating. It provided no explanation for the delay in reporting the strike, which it said killed about 300 ISIS fighters. The ministry said it notified the US about the bombing raid in advance.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov later said that Russia still did not have 100 per cent certainty that al-Baghdadi was killed.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tracks the battlefield situation through a network of activists on the ground, recorded no Russian air strike on May 28, according to the group's head Rami Abdurrahman. He said all the top leaders of ISIS are thought to be in an area between the Iraqi border and Deir Ezzor, which is about 140km south-east of Raqqa.
There have previously been reports, including in March 2015 and last June, that al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded in air strikes carried out by US-led coalition forces.
In March, US defence officials said al-Baghdadi left Mosul before Iraqi forces began their offensive there.
The 46-year-old Iraqi-born ISIS leader, nicknamed The Ghost, has not been seen in public since he proclaimed himself "caliph" in the Iraqi city of Mosul three years ago.
The fortunes of his "caliphate" have since turned - with massive simultaneous offensives by allied forces against both Mosul and Raqqa.
The last sign of life from him was in November last year, after Iraqi forces supported by the aerial might of the coalition launched their reconquest of Mosul.
In an audio recording, al-Baghdadi urged his men to defend Mosul to the bitter end.
Iraqi elite forces have since gained huge ground in Mosul. But they are still battling die-hard militants around the Old City.
Said Mr Patrick Skinner, an analyst with the Soufan Group intelligence consultancy: "It is rather remarkable that the leader of the most image-conscious terrorist group is so low-key in terms of his own publicity."
BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS