Chadian soldiers in Mali have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda commander behind a bloody mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, Chad’s military said on Saturday.
His death would be a major blow to Islamist rebels in Northern Mali who have been pushed into their mountain strongholds by French and African forces.
“On Saturday, March 2, at noon, Chadian armed forces operating in northern Mali completely destroyed a terrorist base(...) The toll included several dead terrorists, including their leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” Chadian armed forces spokesman General Zacharia Gobongue said in a statement read on national television.
Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the seizure of dozens of foreign hostages at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January in which more than 60 people were killed.
The report of his death comes days after Chad’s President Idriss Deby said soldiers in Mali had killed another leading al-Qaeda commander in the Sahara, Adel hamid Abou Zeid.
French officials said they could not confirm the killing of either Abou Zeid or Belmokhtar.
Chad is among several African nations that have contributed forces to a French-led military intervention in Mali aimed at ridding its vast northern desert of Islamist rebels who seized it nearly a year ago following a coup in the capital.
Western and regional nations are worried that al Qaeda will seek to use the zone as a launch pad for international attack sand strengthen ties with homegrown African Islamist groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
In a speech on Friday, French President Francois Hollande said the operation in Mali was in its final stage.
“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 there ports about Abou Zeid’s death appeared to be credible.