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.

Gunbattle Rocks Gao After Rebels Surprise French, Malians

Islamist insurgents launched a surprise raid in the heart of the Malian town of Gao on Sunday, battling French and local troops in a blow to efforts to secure Mali’s recaptured north.

Local residents hid in their homes or crouched behind walls as the crackle of gunfire from running street battles resounded through the sandy streets and mud-brick houses of the ancient Niger River town, retaken from Islamist rebels last month by a French-led offensive.

French helicopters clattered overhead and fired on al Qaeda-allied rebels armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades who had infiltrated the central market area and holed up in a police station, Malian and French officers said.

The fighting inside Gao was certain to raise fears that pockets of determined Islamists who have escaped the lightning four-week-old French intervention in Mali will strike back with guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings.

After driving the bulk of the insurgents from major northern towns such as Timbuktu and Gao, French forces are trying to search out their bases in the remote and rugged Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, far up in the northeast.

But with Mali’s weak army unable to secure recaptured zones, and the deployment of a larger African security force slowed by delays and kit shortages, vast areas to the rear of the French forward lines now look vulnerable to guerrilla activity.

“They infiltrated the town via the river. We think there were about 10 of them. They were identified by the population and they went into the police station,” said General Bernard Barrera, commander of French ground operations in Mali.

He told reporters in Gao that French helicopters had intervened to help Malian troops pinned down by the rebels, who threw grenades from rooftops.

Malian gendarme Colonel Saliou Maiga told Reuters the insurgents intended to carry out suicide attacks in the town.

SUICIDE BOMBERS

No casualty toll was immediately available. But a Reuters reporter in Gao saw one body crumpled over a motorcycle. Malian soldiers said some of the raiders may have come on motorbikes.

The gunfire in Gao erupted hours after French and Malian forces reinforced a checkpoint on the northern outskirts that had been attacked for the second time in two days by a suicide bomber.

Abdoul Abdoulaye Sidibe, a Malian parliamentarian from Gao, said the rebel infiltrators were from the MUJWA group that had held the town until French forces liberated it late last month.

MUJWA is a splinter faction of al Qaeda’s North African wing AQIM which, in loose alliance with the home-grown Malian Islamist group Ansar Dine, held Mali’s main northern urban areas for 10 months until the French offensive drove them out.

Late on Saturday, an army checkpoint in Gao’s northern outskirts came under attack by a group of Islamist rebels who fired from a road and bridge that lead north through the desert scrub by the Niger River to Bourem, 80 km (50 miles) away.

“Our soldiers came under heavy gunfire from jihadists from the bridge … At the same time, another one flanked round and jumped over the wall. He was able to set off his suicide belt,” Malian Captain Sidiki Diarra told reporters.

The bomber died and one Malian soldier was lightly wounded, he added. In Friday’s motorbike suicide bomber attack, a Malian soldier was also injured.

Diarra described Saturday’s bomber as a bearded Arab.

Since Gao and the UNESCO World Heritage city of Timbuktu were retaken last month, several Malian soldiers have been killed in landmine explosions on a main road leading north.

French and Malian officers say pockets of rebels are still in the bush and desert between major towns and pose a threat of hit-and-run guerrilla raids and bombings.

“We are in a dangerous zone… we can’t be everywhere,” a French officer told reporters, asking not to be named.

One local resident reported seeing a group of 10 armed Islamist fighters at Batel, just 10 km (6 miles) from Gao.

OPERATIONS IN NORTHEAST

The French, who have around 4,000 troops in Mali, are now focusing their offensive operations several hundred kilometers (miles) north of Gao in a hunt for the Islamist insurgents.

On Friday, French special forces paratroopers seized the airstrip and town of Tessalit, near the Algerian border.

From here, the French, aided by around 1,000 Chadian troops in the northeast Kidal region, are expected to conduct combat patrols into the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

The remaining Islamists are believed to have hideouts and supply depots in a rugged, sun-blasted range of rocky gullies and caves, and are also thought to be holding at least seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.

The U.S. and European governments back the French-led operation as a defense against Islamist jihadists threatening wider attacks, but rule out sending their own combat troops.

To accompany the military offensive, France and its allies are urging Mali authorities to open a national reconciliation dialogue that addresses the pro-autonomy grievances of northern communities like the Tuaregs, and to hold democratic elections.

Interim President Dioncounda Traore, appointed after a military coup last year that plunged the West African state into chaos and led to the Islamist occupation of the north, has said he intends to hold elections by July 31.

But he faces splits within the divided Malian army, where rival units are still at loggerheads.