Unverified audio by ISIL leader calling on supporters to join fight in Syria and Iraq is first such message for months.
Iraqi security forces say they have struck the convoy of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, in an air strike near the country’s border with Syria.
“The Iraqi air force carried out a heroic operation targeting the convoy of the criminal terrorist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” Iraq’s security forces said in a statement on Sunday.
“His health status is unknown,” it said.
Pentagon officials told Al Jazeera that they could not “corroborate or confirm the Iraqi government claim of striking or killing Baghdadi at this point”.
Iraqi security sources have previously claimed several times that Baghdadi had been injured or killed in strikes, but the claims were either never verified or later denied.
The army statement said Iraqi aircraft struck Baghdadi’s convoy as it was “moving towards Karabla to attend a meeting of the Daesh terrorist leaders”.
Daesh is an Arabic acronym for the ISIL group, which last year proclaimed a caliphate straddling Iraqi and Syria.
Karabla is located on the Euphrates river barely five kilometres from the border with Syria. The statement did not make clear when the strike was carried out.
Coordinated air strike
The statement said the operation was conducted in coordination with Iraq’s interior ministry intelligence services and the joint operation command centre that includes military advisers from the US-led coalition.
ISIL supporters said on Twitter on Sunday that even if Baghdadi has been killed, his self-proclaimed caliphate will survive.
“Does the entire world not know that even if, hypothetically, our Sheikh al-Baghdadi, God save and protect him from all evils and dangers, was martyred, do you think the State of the Caliphate would end? Do you think we would leave?” said a tweet from a supporter.
An ISIL fighter told the Reuters news agency on the phone that he could not confirm whether Baghdadi had been in the convoy that was struck, but he said the group would fight on whatever his fate: “Even if he was martyred then it will not affect the Islamic State. We will lose a leader, but there are a thousand Baghdadis.
“Every minute a leader is born in the Islamic State.”