Chechen spies loyal to the Kremlin have infiltrated Islamic State in Syria and are gathering intelligence the Russian air force uses to select bombing targets, the hardline leader of Chechnya told Russian state TV.
Ramzan Kadyrov, who as a close ally of President Vladimir Putin keeps tight control of a mostly Muslim region with a history of rebellion against Moscow, said Chechens had trained alongside Islamic State fighters at the start of the Syrian war.
“An extensive spy network has been set up inside Islamic State,” Kadyrov’s office quoted him on Monday as telling Russia’s state-controlled Russia 1 channel.
He said Chechnya’s “best fighters” had been sent to Syria to gather information about militants’ structure and numbers.
“Thanks to their work as agents the Russian air force is successfully destroying terrorist bases in Syria.”
When asked about the comments, Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, declined to confirm the presence of Chechen forces in Syria. Kadyrov’s full interview on the subject is due to be broadcast on state TV on Wednesday.
Islamic State in Syria posted grisly footage in December of the murder of a man it said was from Chechnya and had been spying on them for Russian intelligence. Kadyrov, himself accused by campaign groups of human rights abuses, quickly denied the man was a spy.
Chechens opposed to Russian rule, many hardened by combat in two wars with Moscow, are known also to be fighting as committed jihadis on the side of Islamic State in Syria. Moscow fears they may return and mount attacks in Russia, as they have threatened.
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 armor 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 a teaser broadcast on Sunday evening ahead of the full program later this week, 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 authorized such a deployment.
Russian forces fought two brutal wars against Chechen insurgents; but the region, though it still faces limited low-level islamist insurgency, has now been given a large measure of autonomy within Russia and been rebuilt. Kadyrov says he is one of Putin’s staunchest supporters.