MOSCOW -- Security services of Russia and neighboring Ukraine foiled a plan to assassinate Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin organized by an underground movement in the restive North Caucasus region, state television reported Monday.
The report came less than a week before Putin, who is seeking to reclaim the presidency, faces voters in a March 4 election. Protests by tens of thousands of demonstrators, most recently in Moscow on Sunday, accuse officials loyal to Putin of cheating in parliamentary elections in early December. But he still is expected to defeat his four opponents on the first ballot.
Some observers questioned reports of an assassination plot -- suggesting that it was either entirely fabricated, or that the news of a real plot was released at a time when it would benefit Putin's campaign.
Russia's main state television channel reported that Ukrainian authorities arrested a Russian after a Jan. 4 explosion in an apartment in the Black Sea port of Odessa. A second person died in the explosion, it said.
The survivor provided information leading to the arrest early this month of a third person, who was identified as Adam Osmayev, it said.
In video provided by Ukrainian authorities, a man with bruised face who was identified as Osmayev said the group was planning to kill Putin sometime after the election using anti-tank mines.
"The final goal was to come to Moscow and try and carry out an attempt on Premier Putin's life," he said. "The security service is not omnipowerful, it can't control all the cars, all the pedestrians in the street."
The report said that Osmayev's laptop, which was seized in the raid, contained several video recordings of Putin's motorcade route in and near Moscow made from different vantage points. It said that information provided by Ukraine helped the Russians find a cache of plastic explosives and detonators buries near one of Moscow's major thoroughfares, Kutuzovsky Prospekt.
Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, confirmed to the ITAR-TASS news agency that an attempt on his boss's life was prevented but refused to elaborate.
Putin came to power in 2000 and quickly gained popularity by launching a fierce military campaign to regain control of the North Caucasus republic of Chechnya. But violence continues in the region's patchwork of ethnic republics, and over the years Chechen groups have claimed responsibility for a series of terrorist attacks in Russia.
Russian news reports identified Osmayev as a Chechen. The television report said he had arrived in Ukraine from the United Arab Emirates, that he had lived in London, and claimed that he had received his instructions from representatives of Chechen insurgent leader Doku Umarov.
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Some political experts downplayed reports of a plot as little more than a publicity stunt.
"Putin seems oblivious to the fact that the country has changed in the last 12 years and people are not going to come out and protect the nation's leader with their bodies in an imaginary war," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior researcher at Moscow's Systems Analysis Institute.
But Sergei Markov, vice president of the Moscow-based Plekhanov Economic University, said the Kremlin may have taken advantage of information about a real plot to help Putin's campaign.
"It is a fact that Putin has always been the primary target for various terrorist groups, but until now the information about previous attempts on his life has been kept from the public," Markov said. "I think this time, given the decisive week of the campaign, they must have decided that it makes no sense to keep this important news from the public."
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