Moscow: Russian and Ukrainian special services have arrested suspects linked to a Chechen rebel leader for allegedly plotting to assassinate Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, state television reported on Monday, less than a week before elections he is all but certain to win.
Channel One said the suspects, acting on instructions from Chechen warlord Doku Umarov, were preparing to kill Putin in Moscow immediately after Sunday's election.
The station said the suspects were arrested in Ukraine's Black Sea port city of Odessa after an accidental explosion Jan. 4 while they were trying to manufacture explosives at a rented apartment.
The Ukrainian Security Service said on Feb. 7 that it had detained three suspects on terrorist charges in Odessa on Feb. 4, but it said nothing at the time about them being linked an anti-Putin plot. Its spokeswoman, Marina Ostapenko, said Monday that the announcement in Moscow came only now apparently because the Russian special service was conducting its own investigation.
Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed the report to the ITAR-Tass news agency, but refused to comment further. Russian and Ukrainian special services wouldn't comment.
The station said the source for its information was Russia's Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency dealing with domestic security. It was impossible to independently verify the claim.
Opinion polls show that Putin will likely take a first-round victory in the presidential vote despite a series of mass protests in Moscow against his rule that have undermined his image as a powerful and popular leader. He has managed to recoup some of the losses thanks to blanket daily coverage by state-controlled TV stations that cast him as a defender of Russia against foreign plots.
Putin has counted the victory over Chechen rebels as one of the key achievements of his rule, and the report about the alleged plot is likely to further boost support.
Channel One said two of the alleged members of the group arrived in Ukraine from the United Arab Emirates via Turkey with instructions from Umarov, the top military leader for the Chechen rebels. One of them, a Chechen, was killed during the accidental explosion in Odessa and another one, Kazakhstan's citizen Ilya Pyanzin, was wounded in the blast and arrested.
Pyanzin led the investigators to their liaison in Odessa, Adam Osmayev, a Chechen who previously had lived in London, the report said. The TV station showed some footage of Osmayev's arrest in Odessa with black-clad special troops bursting in and half-naked, bloodied Osmayev on his knees, his head bowed down.
Speaking to Channel One from custody in Ukraine, Osmayev described the group's mission: "Our goal was to go to Moscow and try to kill Prime Minister Putin ... Our deadline was after the Russian presidential election."
Both of Osmayev's hands were bandaged, and his face was covered in green dots from an antiseptic used to treat his cuts,
He said he wouldn't have become a suicide bomber, but another Chechen who was killed in the accidental explosion might have agreed. Osmayev added that they considered using powerful military mines that would make a suicide mission unnecessary.
Umarov claimed responsibility for a January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport, which killed 37 and injured more than 180, warning that many more such attacks would follow if Russia did not allow the Caucasus to become an independent Islamic state governed by Sharia law.
Umarov also has claimed responsibility for an array of other terror attacks in the past, including the double suicide bombing of the Moscow subway system in March 2010 that killed 40 people. He is seen more as an ideological than a military figure, as many militant cells operate autonomously and shun centralized command.
Umarov and other rebels have so far been silent on the arrests.
Channel One said Osmayev had led the investigators to a cache of explosives near a Moscow avenue that Putin uses to travel between his office and a suburban residence. A Russian security officer told the station that the suspects also had videos of Putin's convoy taken from different angles to prepare for the attack.
Pyanzin also was shown saying that they were to sabotage economic facilities and then try to kill Putin.