Russian and Ukrainian authorities yesterday said they had uncovered a terrorist plot to assassinate Vladimir Putin, an announcement that raised many eyebrows owing to its disclosure only days before the presidential elections.
The planned assassination, by a band of Chechen terrorists, was due to occur around the time of Sunday's polls, according to a lengthy report aired on state-run Channel One. It claimed the attack was planned by a group of terrorists under the command of Doku Umarov, Russia's most wanted man, who has planned several attacks, including a suicide blast at a Moscow Airport last year.
Channel One broadcast extraordinary footage from the arrest in the Ukrainian city of Odessa of the Chechen Adam Osmayev three weeks ago. A team of masked special operatives burst into a room and detained the half-naked suspect, who was covered in blood. Later, with scars on his face, he spoke to the camera: "Our goal was to go to Moscow and try to kill Prime Minister Putin. Our deadline was the Russian presidential election." Russian television said that Osmayev had studied in the UK and met exiled Chechen terrorists in London, where he first began to hatch his plans. Investigators say the basic plan had been to mine the route of Mr Putin's convoy using special anti-tank mines that would destroy even armoured cars. Channel One said Russian authorities had found an arms stash near Kutuzovsky Prospekt, the broad avenue along which Mr Putin travels to work each day, and that reconnaissance work on the route of his convoy had already been undertaken, with photographs discovered on a laptop belonging to Osmayev.
There seemed to be some obvious holes in this story, however, not least the logistical aspect. Mr Putin is one of the best-guarded people in the world, and when his convoy passes through Moscow, traffic is stopped and police line the road. The convoy has many vehicles and travels at high speed.
In the Russian blogosphere there was widespread derision over the nature and timing of the plot. Some pointed out there there had been similar reports of a planned attack on Mr Putin, pictured, ahead of presidential elections four years ago, when he moved over to become Prime Minister and handed the presidency to his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev,
A Channel One spokesperson said anyone thinking the report was a PR trick was "psychologically unhealthy" while Russian officials said it was natural that terrorists would target the Prime Minister. "Putin has stepped on the throat and tail of many a terrorist, this is why the preparations for such attack are hardly a surprise," said Viktor Ozerov, head of the Defence and Security Committee of Russia's upper house of parliament.
Opposition politicians were sceptical, however. Gennady Gudkov, an MP and former KGB officer who has joined the opposition, said: "It is very possible, but the fact that this only comes out now... shows the information has been politicised, and makes you trust it less."