Al-Qaeda's branch in northern Africa on Monday confirmed that one of its senior leaders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, had been killed in northern Mali, a report said.
Zeid was killed as a result of a French bombing raid in the Ifoghas mountains, a member of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI) who normally writes for jihadist websites told the private Mauritanian news agency Sahara Medias.
He denied claims, however, that another Islamist leader in the region, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had been killed, saying that Belmokhtar "is in the Gao region, waging the fight against he enemy."
Earlier on Monday, remarks from the head of France’s joint chiefs of staff Edouard Guillaud’s were the first indication from the French government that Abou Zeid died in fighting in the rugged north of Mali.
“It is likely, but it is only likely,” Guillaud said when asked about the killing on Europe 1 radio, adding that French authorities cannot “have any certainty right now because we have not recovered the body.”
Chad’s army, which is fighting alongside French forces in northern Mali, said last week that it killed Abou Zeid and another al Qaeda commander in the area, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
France launched a whirlwind assault to retake Mali’s vast northern desert region from AQIM and other Islamist rebels on Jan. 11 after a plea from Mali’s caretaker government. The military intervention dislodged the rebels from several main towns they had occupied and drove them back into desert wilds.
Overwhelmed by the superior fire-power of the French air force and special forces, Islamist hardliners in northern Mali pulled out of the towns they had ruthlessly ruled for nine months, imposing an extreme form of sharia law.
They regrouped and reverted to guerrilla tactics, launching hit-and-run attacks against French or pro-government forces and resorting to suicide attacks.
AQIM has earned tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments for Western hostages taken to its strongholds in northern Mali.
Abu Zeid has been regarded as one of AQIM’s most ruthless operators. He is believed to have executed British national Edwin Dyer in 2009 and a 78-year-old Frenchman, Michel Germaneau, in 2010.
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.