Islamic State (ISIS) group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appears to be still alive, a top U.S. military commander said Thursday, according to The Associated Press.
"Do I believe he's alive? Yes," said Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition forces fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, referring to al-Baghdadi.
At first, Townsend said his belief stemmed from a lack of evidence he had seen - "rumor or otherwise" - that al-Baghdadi was dead. But, he then added, "There are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he's alive."
Townsend did not elaborate on the intelligence.
His remarks contradict Russia's recent claims that it probably killed al-Baghdadi months ago.
The Russian Defense Ministry said several months ago that al-Baghdadi might have been among a group of ISIS members who were killed in a Russian air strike on May 28 south of Raqqa, ISIS's de facto capital in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights subsequently claimed it had "confirmed information" that al-Baghdadi has been killed, citing high-level ISIS commanders.
U.S. officials, however, have remained skeptical. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in late July he assumes that al-Baghdadi is still alive.
"I think that he's alive, and I'll believe otherwise when we know we've killed him. But we're going after him … we assume he's alive," Mattis said at the time.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday from his headquarters in Baghdad, Townsend said U.S. and coalition forces are actively searching for al-Baghdadi. If they find him, they probably will kill him rather than capture him, he said.
A good guess about where al-Baghdadi is hiding, Townsend said, would be the so-called Middle Euphrates River Valley, stretching approximately from the city of Deir el-Zour in eastern Syria to the town of Rawa in western Iraq.
He said this area is shaping up to be the group's "last stand" following its ouster from nearly all of northern Iraq.
Late last year, the ISIS leader refuted reports of his death by releasing an audio message in which he said he is "confident of victory" and called on the people of Mosul to fight the "enemies of God".