Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, narrowly escaped death at the hands of a terrorist assassination squad, Russian state television reported on Monday, less than a week before the country’s presidential elections.

Channel One reported that Russian and Ukrainian security services foiled plans by a group of separatists from Russia’s restive North Caucasus region who were arrested earlier this month. The plot’s mastermind was said to be Doku Umarov, a Chechen rebel leader hiding out in the hinterlands of southern Russia who has been implicated in a number of other terror attacks.

The timing of the news, with days to go before the election which Mr Putin is the favourite to win, was questioned by some critics of the Kremlin. “Why was the information hidden for so long?” asked journalist Gamid Gamidov on his blog on the website of opposition-leaning radio station Ekho Moskvy. “Did they decide to wait and announce it on the eve of the elections, in order to add weight to their candidate’s presidential campaign?”

Kost Bondarenko, a Ukrainian political analyst and head of the Ukrainian Institute of Politics, also sounded a sceptical note, saying: “ It’s the second time that we hear about individuals vying to assassinate Putin being captured in Ukraine …I think we will never find out the truth whether this is a real legitimate threat. But given that it is unravelling one week ahead of the Russian elections, there is a scent of political PR. For Ukraine, the aim would be to demonstrate the success of its secret service. For Russia, the threat of a terrorist assignation attempt justifies a boost in security on the streets just as opposition crowds are getting bigger.”

The plot was reportedly foiled in the Ukrainian city of Odessa after an explosion on January 4 at an apartment that the terrorist cell was using to manufacture explosives, killing one member of the gang. A second man was injured in the blast and arrested, leading investigators to Adam Osmayev, described as the leader of the cell. Mr Osmayev is a Chechen who had previously lived in London and was described by Channel One as an international fugitive.

“Our final goal was to go to Moscow and attempt to assassinate Putin,” Mr Osmayev said on a video shown on Channel One, his face and hands bearing numerous scars and bruises. “Our deadline was after the election of the president of Russia.”

He added that the gang had planned to either use anti-vehicle mines to attack Mr Putin’s motorcade or launch a suicide attack. He said the member of the gang who was killed in the January blast had been prepared to act as a suicide bomber.

Interfax, the Russian news agency, quoted an anonymous source in Ukraine’s security services as confirming that three Russian citizens had been arrested on terrorism charges in Odessa on February 6, but they declined to give the identities, though one of them was almost certainly Mr Osmayev.

According to Interfax, Dmitry Peskov, Mr Putin’s press secretary, “basically confirmed” the story. He has so far declined to comment.

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