The leader of Islamists waging an insurgency in Chechnya and neighboring Russian provinces says in a video posted on YouTube that he is resigning after years of attacks including a Moscow subway bombing that killed 40 people.
A man recognizable as Doku Umarov says in the grainy footage posted late Sunday that he is handing over command of the group of fighters known as the Caucasus Emirate, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in the region. Experts say the group maintains links to al-Qaida and related terrorist groups.
The video was posted by a user whose account identifies him or her as a 28-year-old Georgian. The user also posted several video addresses by regional field commanders. No other information about the video was available.
The bearded 46-year-old appeared frail in the video showing him and two other fighters sitting in a wooded area.
"Today I am leaving my post, but it does not mean that I am leaving jihad," he said. "As an old veteran, I will be doing my best to help with words and deeds."
The Kremlin-backed government of Chechnya has claimed that Umarov was seriously wounded in June 2009 and nearly died in July after a federal intelligence agent poisoned his food.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov said Monday that Umarov had stepped down due to deteriorating health, and security forces were still hunting him despite his apparent resignation. Rights advocates have accused Kadyrov of extra-judicial killings, torture and other abuses in Chechnya.
"He is sick, hides in a hole like a rat killing lice, he's got no teeth left and is incapable of commanding anyone," Kadyrov was quoted by the ITAR-Tass news agency as saying.
Czarist Russia conquered the mountainous and multiethnic Northern Caucasus region by the late 19th century. After the Soviet collapse, the region was beset by violence, stoked by poverty, corruption, Islamist extremism and feuding criminal gangs.
Umarov joined Chechnya's separatists in 1992 as dozens of jihadists from Arab countries and other parts of the Muslim world flooded into the region of some seven million people. Chechen militants fought two brutal wars with Russian forces, and many trained in Afghanistan or Pakistan.
"These contacts were very strong," political analyst Yulia Latynina told The Associated Press.
Umarov led several hundred insurgents and masterminded several terrorist attacks and raids outside Chechnya and declared himself the emir, or military leader, of the Caucasus Emirate in 2006. Moscow and the Kremlin-backed Chechen authorities had gained control over most of province. The rebels were forced into hiding and began a new era of sporadic attacks on federal forces.
Latynina said Umarov's authority was more ideological than operational, because the attacks were waged by terrorist cells operating throughout the Northern Caucasus, often autonomously
The Obama administration placed Umarov on a list of terrorist leaders after he claimed responsibility for the March suicide bombings on Moscow's subway and the November 2009 train bombing that claimed 26 lives.
Umarov said he is ceding leadership to a deputy, Aslambek Vadalov.
"Our brother Aslambek is younger, he has more energy, there will be other results," Umarov said in the video.