Security forces have foiled a Chechen-linked plot to assassinate Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, state television reported Monday in a broadcast likely to boost support for Putin's bid to regain the presidency.
Other candidates immediately questioned the timing of the report, which comes just days before Sunday's presidential election and as Putin and his United Russia party face unprecedented protests following a scandal-marred parliamentary election in December.
The Communist Party candidate called the assassination report a "cheap trick."
Putin has portrayed himself as a strong protector of Russia's national interests and has counted the victory over Chechen separatist rebels as one of the key achievements of his 12-year rule. The state television report casting Putin as a terrorist target could draw public sympathy and help secure his victory by a wider margin.
The report, which included two televised confessions, said suspects in the assassination plot have been arrested in Ukraine and were linked to a Chechen rebel leader who has claimed responsibility for other terror attacks in Russia.
Putin, who was Russia's president from 2000 to 2008 and has been prime minister since then, is running for a third, now six-year presidential term. He is expected to win easily against four Kremlin-approved challengers, but a wave of protests since December's tainted parliamentary election has undermined his image as a strong, popular leader.
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. It said the suspects were arrested in Ukraine's Black Sea port of Odessa after an accidental explosion Jan. 4 while they were trying to manufacture explosives at a rented apartment.
The Ukrainian Security Service said earlier this month it had detained a man sought by Russian authorities on charges of terrorism and two of his accomplices in Odessa on Feb. 4, but said nothing at the time about linked them to an anti-Putin plot.
The agency's spokeswoman, Marina Ostapenko, said Monday the announcement in Moscow only came now because the Russian special service was conducting its own investigation. She confirmed the main suspect was involved in a plot to kill Putin, but didn't elaborate.
There was no immediate explanation for why Russia cited two suspects and Ukraine alluded to three.
Channel One said the source for its information was Russia's Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor agency dealing with domestic security. The agency refused to comment.
Umarov, whose whereabouts are unknown, has not responded to the allegations.
A Chechen rebel website, KavkazCenter, shrugged off the report about the assassination plot as "election propaganda nonsense." The website noted that the explosion in Odessa was initially reported to be a gas leak and the men were said to be preparing explosives for a contract hit on a local businessman.
Three veteran party leaders on the presidential ballot differed on whether the report could be believed, but all said they suspected the news was intentionally delayed until shortly before the election to provide maximum benefit to Putin.
Sergei Mironov, leader of the socialist Just Russia party, said the assassination plot was plausible. The others disagreed.
Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader running far second to Putin in the polls, called the report "a cheap trick that reeks," the state RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.
The nationalist party leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, said the assassination plot was invented by political spin doctors and designed to appeal to "poorly educated old ladies" and housewives, the news agency reported.
The majority of Russians get their news from state-controlled television, whose blanket coverage of Putin casts him as the defender of a stable and prosperous Russia.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said any statements linking the reported plot to the presidential campaign were "blasphemous."
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 the other one, Kazakhstan citizen Ilya Pyanzin, was wounded in the blast and arrested.
Pyanzin led investigators to his contact in Odessa, Adam Osmayev, a Chechen who previously had lived in London and had been sought by Russia since 2007, the report said. The TV station showed footage of Osmayev's arrest in Odessa with black-clad special troops bursting in and later a 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," he was quoted as saying.
It was not clear if the statement was made freely. 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 the other Chechen who was killed in the accidental explosion might have agreed to do that. Osmayev added they considered using powerful military mines that would have made a suicide mission unnecessary.
Umarov, the Chechen rebel leader, has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks against Russia, including a January 2011 suicide bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport that killed 37 people and injured more than 180. Umarov also had warned 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 claimed responsibility for the double-suicide bombing of Moscow's subway 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.
In response to Russia's opposition protests against Putin, Umarov issued a statement this month ordering his men to avoid hitting civilian targets because civilians have risen up against Putin.
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 television station that the suspects also had videos of Putin's convoy taken from different angles to prepare for the alleged attack.
Pyanzin, who also confessed on film, was shown saying that his group was supposed to sabotage Russian economic facilities and then try to kill Putin.