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.

Mali Islamists Flee To Sudan’s Darfur Region

Islamist fighters from Mali have reached Sudan’s western Darfur region after fleeing French air strikes and advancing ground troops, a Sudanese rebel group said on Friday.

French troops have pushed militants out of cities and into desert and mountain hideouts in a four-week operation to prevent Mali becoming a base for attacks in Africa and Europe.

“We have confirmed that some Mali fighters are in Darfur,” said Gibreel Adam, spokesman for the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebel group in Darfur.

Western governments fear that al Qaeda-linked fighters will cross African borders as they seek refuge.

Law and order has collapsed in large parts of Darfur since mainly non-Arab rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government in 2003.

Adam said an unknown number of fighters from Mali had entered Darfur through Sudan’s remote southwestern border with the Central African Republic.

“They are in Um Dafuq and other areas in the north and south of western Darfur,” he said.

The Sudanese foreign ministry and army could not be reached for comment.

Radio Dabanga, a Netherlands-based Darfuri station, said local sources had reported the arrival of Mali fighters in North Darfur.

The fighters, distinguished by their look and language, had arrived with armed Land Cruisers in Kutum and Adumur in North Darfur, the station said.

France has deployed nearly 4,000 ground troops as well as warplanes and armored vehicles in Operation Serval which has broken the Islamist militants’ 10-month grip on northern towns.

It is now due to hand over to a U.N.-backed African force.

French President Visits Mali To Support French Troops

The President of France, Francois Hollande arrived in Mali on Saturday on a one-day visit to support French troops fighting a campaign against Islamist rebels in the Sahel nation.

Hollande, accompanied by his ministers for Defense, Foreign Affairs and Development, flew into Sevare in central Mali, French TV channels said.

He was due to go on to Timbuktu, the famed Saharan trading town which was recaptured from the rebels on Sunday.

The French leader was expected to outline the next phase of the mission for the French forces, which in a three-week intervention launched at Mali’s request have pushed the Islamist fighters into the desert and mountains of the remote northeast.

Hollande has said that the French operation, which has 3,500 soldiers on the ground in Mali backed by warplanes, helicopters and armored vehicles, wants to hand over to a larger U.N.-backed African force which is still being deployed.

Sustained French airstrikes have forced fighters from the Islamist militant alliance that was occupying northern Mali to retreat into the remote Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border. The rebels are also believed to be holding there seven French hostages previously seized in the Sahel.

In their three-week offensive, the French forces recaptured last weekend, with little resistance from the rebels, the two main towns in northern Mali, Gao and the fabled ancient city of Timbuktu.

 

Jonathan warns of military intervention in Mali if talks with rebels fail

President Goodluck Jonathan has warned that military intervention in northern Mali will be inevitable if talks with Islamist group controlling the region, fails.

President Jonathan made this known during his visit to Senegal. He however stated that a West African force would only be deployed, with the approval of the United Nations.

ECOWAS would send a force to the area if a peace deal is not reached with the Islamist fighters, stated the president, adding that “diplomacy and negotiation is first.”

“ECOWAS will definitely intervene militarily, but … first and foremost we are negotiating,” he said after talks with Senegalese President Mr Macky Sall.

“We must stabilise the government … I believe through negotiation we will be able to resolve the crisis, we don’t necessarily need military intervention … but if that fails we will have no option.”

“Military intervention is extreme and when negotiations fail, at that time you can talk about military intervention” he said.

Burkina Faso’s Foreign Minister Djibrille Bas held talks with the militants last month as part of bloc’s diplomatic effort to end the conflict.

ECOWAS, as also asked the UN Security Council to endorse its plan to send 3,000 troops to Mali.

However, it refused, saying it needed more clarity on the West African body’s military objectives and how it intended to achieve them.

Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels took control of large swathes of northern Mali after President Amadou Toumani Toure was overthrown in a coup in March.

But the rebel alliance has since ruptured, with Islamist fighters chasing Tuareg rebels out of several northern towns and imposing Sharia law.

The Islamists have destroyed ancient shrines in the historical city of Timbuktu, claiming they violated Sharia law and promoted idolatry among Muslims.

The UN warned that the destruction of the shrines could amount to war crimes and the International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary inquiry into alleged atrocities.

The Islamists have also stoned to death an unwed couple and amputated the hand of an alleged thief.

Alleged atrocities committed in the rebel-held north are being investigated by international prosecutors.

A new unity government was formed in Mali’s capital, Bamako, at the weekend, promising to spearhead initiatives to end the instability in the north.

Mali has so far rejected a full-scale foreign intervention but said its army, once re-equipped, would need the support of two or three battalions.