Islamists Kill French Soldier In Northern Mali

France said on Sunday a third French soldier had been killed in fierce fighting with Islamist rebels in northern Mali but could not confirm Chad’s report that its troops had killed the al Qaeda commander behind January’s mass hostage-taking in Algeria.

A whirlwind seven-week campaign has driven al Qaeda-linked fighters who took over northern Mali last April into mountain and desert redoubts, where they are being hunted by hundreds of French, Chadian and Malian troops.

France’s defense ministry said 26-year-old Corporal Cedric Charenton was shot dead on Saturday during an assault on an Islamist hideout in the desolate Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near Algeria, the third French soldier killed in the campaign.

French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said some 15 Islamists were killed in some of the fiercest fighting during the campaign so far but that he could not confirm Chad’s claim that its troops had killed al Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar at a nearby camp in the remote Ametetai valley.

“We are facing a very fanatical adversary,” Burkhard said, noting the Islamists were armed with rocket and grenade-launchers as well as machine guns, AK47 assault rifles and heavy weapons. “They are fighting without giving ground.”

The death of Belmokhtar, nicknamed ‘the uncatchable’, has been reported several times in the past and analysts share caution shown by Paris in confirming his demise.

However, the latest report came a day after Chadian President Idriss Deby said Chadian forces had also killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, al Qaeda’s other senior field commander in the Sahara.

The killing of Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid, if confirmed, would eliminate al Qaeda’s leadership in Mali and raise questions over the fate of seven French hostages thought to be held by the group in northern Mali, an area the size of Texas.

Rudy Attalah, a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official focused on Africa and now head of risk analysis firm White Mountain research, was skeptical about Chad’s claim.

He said Belmokhtar had in the past carefully avoided operating in the same area as Abou Zeid and was known as an elusive operator who shifted through the desert in small, mobile groups of fighters.

“I don’t think they killed him at all,” Atallah said, adding Chad might be seeking to divert domestic attention from its 26 soldiers killed in the operation. “Deby is under a lot of pressure. Announcing these killings redeems his troops.”

An unidentified participant in militant website discussions said in a message posted on several jihadi forums that Belmoktar was “alive and well and leading the battles himself”, the U.S.-based SITE monitoring service reported on Sunday.

Belmokhtar would soon issue a statement himself, SITE reported the participant saying.

‘MR MARLBORO’

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has pledged to avenge the French assault on its fighters in Mali, which Paris said it launched due to fears its former colony could become a launch pad for wider al Qaeda attacks.

Belmokhtar, whose smuggling activities the Sahara earned him the nickname “Mr Marlboro”, became one of the world’s most wanted jihadis after masterminding the raid on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in which more than 60 people were killed, including dozens of foreign hostages.

Abou Zeid is regarded as one of AQIM’s most ruthless operators, responsible for the kidnapping of more than 20 Western hostages since 2008. He is believed to have killed British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.

France and Mali have said they could not confirm his death.

French radio RFI and Algerian daily El Khabar have reported that DNA tests were being conducted on members of Abou Zeid’s family to confirm whether a body recovered after fighting in Adrar des Ifoghas was indeed the Islamist leader.

Mali’s army, meanwhile, said it had killed 52 Islamist rebels in desert fighting some 70 km (45 miles) east of Gao, northern Mali’s largest town, with support from French helicopters and ground troops.

“There was a big fight with lots of enemy killed,” said Lieutenant Colonel Nema Sagara, the Malian army’s deputy commander in Gao. “Our troops went out to battle and they met them. There are no dead on the Malian side.”

Chad Says Al Qaeda Commander Killed In Mali, France Cautious

One of al Qaeda’s most feared commanders in Africa, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, has been killed by Chadian forces in northern Mali, Chad’s President Idriss Deby said on Friday.

French officials said they could not confirm the report.

“It was Chadian forces who killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid,” Deby told opposition politicians in the presence of journalists after a funeral ceremony for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting at the weekend.

Chadian soldiers with support from French special forces and fighter jets are hunting down pockets of al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the border region with Algeria after a seven-week French-led campaign broke Islamist domination of northern Mali.

The death of Abou Zeid, who has earned AQIM tens of millions of dollars with a spate of kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahara over the last five years, would be a significant but far from fatal blow to the group.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed mastermind of a mass hostage-taking at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria last month, remains at large. So does Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag Ghali, who was this week placed on the U.S. global terrorist list.

Sources close to Islamist militants and tribal elders had earlier said Abou Zeid, blamed for kidnapping at least 20 Westerners in the Sahara, was among 40 militants killed within the past few days in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

Algeria’s Ennahar television, which is well connected with Algerian security services, had reported his death on Thursday but there was no official confirmation.

A former smuggler turned jihadi, Algerian-born Abou Zeid is regarded as one of the most ruthless operators of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He is believed to have executed British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.

A trusted lieutenant of AQIM’s leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, Abou Zeid imposed a violent form of sharia law during Islamist domination of the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.

“The death of Abou Zeid has been confirmed by several of his supporters who have come back from the mountains,” said Ibrahim Oumar Toure, a mechanic in the northern Malian town of Kidal who worked with Islamist rebels and remains in contact with them.

Members of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group, who have been acting as scouts for French and Chadian forces, said Islamist prisoners seized during the fighting confirmed Abou Zeid and another militant leader had been killed.

However, French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said she could neither confirm nor deny the report, and French officials urged caution. An official MNLA spokesman said the group had no evidence to prove he was dead.

French radio RFI and Algerian daily El Khabar reported that DNA tests were being conducted on members of Abou Zeid’s family to confirm whether a body recovered by French troops after fighting in Adrar des Ifoghas was indeed the Islamist leader.

HOLLANDE SAYS OPERATION NEARS END

In a speech on Friday, French President Francois Hollande said the operation in Mali was in its final stage and he was not obliged to confirm Abou Zeid’s death.

“Terrorist groups have taken refuge and are hiding in an especially difficult zone,” he said. “Information is out there. I don’t have to confirm it because we must reach the end of the operation.”

A U.S. official and a Western diplomat, however, said the reports appeared to be credible.

According to local sources in Kidal, MNLA Tuareg rebels, who are working with French forces, had located Abou Zeid’s fighters and handed over the coordinates for French jets to strike.

“They were hidden in mountain caves and were building bombs for suicide attacks when they were killed,” Toure said.

Abou Zeid’s death will be of particular interest to the French government as he is believed to be holding at least four French citizens kidnapped from Niger in 2010.

After its success in dislodging al Qaeda fighters from northern Mali’s towns, France and its African allies have faced a mounting wave of suicide bombings and guerrilla-style raids by Islamists in northern Malian towns.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Geneva on Friday that a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace French troops in Mali should be discussed as soon as possible.

Al Qaeda Commander Abou Zeid Killed In Mali

French forces have killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of the most feared commanders of al Qaeda’s north Africa wing, during an operation against Islamist fighters in mountainous northern Mali, Algeria’s Ennahar television said on Thursday.

Abou Zeid was among 40 militants killed three days ago in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border, said Ennahar, which is well connected with Algeria’s security services.

French and Chadian troops have been hunting fighters there after a lightning campaign to dislodge them from northern Mali.

A spokesman for France’s Elysee presidential palace declined to comment. Algeria’s government, Malian and Chadian officials could not confirm Abou Zeid’s killing.

A U.S. official said the reports that Abou Zeid had been killed appeared to be credible and that Washington would view his death as a serious blow to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

A French army official, who would not comment on Abou Zeid, confirmed that about 40 Islamists had been killed in heavy fighting over the last week in the mountainous Tigargara region.

The official said 1,200 French troops, 800 Chadian soldiers and some elements of the Malian army were still in combat to the south of Tessalit in the Adrar mountain range.

Ten logistics sites and an explosives factory had been destroyed in the operation as well as 16 vehicles, she said.

France launched the assault on January 11 to retake Mali’s vast desert north from AQIM and other Islamist rebels after a plea from Mali’s government to halt the militants’ drive southward.

The intervention swiftly dislodged rebels from northern Mali’s main towns and drove them back into the surrounding desert and mountains, particularly the Adrar des Ifoghas.

Abou Zeid, regarded as one of AQIM’s most ruthless operators, is an Algerian former smuggler turned jihadist who is believed to be behind the kidnapping of more than 20 Westerners in the lawless Sahara over the last five years, earning AQIM tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments.

He is believed to have executed British national Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman, Michel Germaneau, in 2010.

FLED TIMBUKTU WITH HOSTAGES

Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, in an account of his kidnapping by another Islamist cell in the Sahara, recounted how Abou Zeid refused to give medication to two hostages suffering from dysentery, one of whom had been stung by a scorpion.

After a loose alliance of Islamist groups seized northern Mali from April last year, Abou Zeid took control of the ancient desert trading town of Timbuktu, employing a violently extreme form of sharia, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.

Timbuktu elders who dealt directly with him during the Islamist occupation described a short man with a grey beard and a quiet, severe manner who was never seen without an AK-47 rifle.

Locals said that when he fled Timbuktu, before the town fell to the French-led military advance, he took several blindfolded Western hostages in his convoy.

Born in 1965 in the Debdab region of Algeria’s Illizi province, close to the Libyan border, Abou Zeid joined the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) during the 1990s civil war, which later transformed itself into AQIM.

Abou Zeid is regarded by some as one of AQIM’s radicals, unwilling to negotiate or make concessions, compared with the more diplomatic approach of his fellow Saharan commander Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the mass hostage taking at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria last month.

Fowler, the Canadian diplomat who encountered them both while held hostage, told Reuters last month that Abou Zeid in person was more genial than the austere, “all-business” Belmokhtar.

The two very different men are reported to have a strong rivalry within AQIM, which some analysts have suggested was behind Belmokhtar’s decision to found his own brigade last year.