French President Francois Hollande’s office confirmed Saturday that one of the key leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, had been killed in fighting with French-led forces in northern Mali.
Hollande “confirms Abdelhamid Abou Zeid’s death with certainty during fighting led by the French army in the Ifoghas Mountains in northern Mali in late February,” the Elysee palace said in a statement.
“The elimination of one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel.”
Abou Zeid’s death was first announced on March 1 by Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, whose army is fighting alongside French troops to secure the Ifoghas.
Two days later, the Chadian army also announced it had killed Algerian Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the other historic leader of Al-Qaeda’s North African branch.
But France has not confirmed the death of Belmokhtar, who has split from Al-Qaeda and masterminded a January raid on an Algerian gas plant that left 38 hostages dead.
Abou Zeid, 46, was considered one of AQIM’s most radical leaders.
In June 2009, his men kidnapped British tourist Edwin Dyer. According to multiple witnesses, Abou Zeid personally beheaded him.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had said after fierce fighting in the Ifoghas in late February that DNA tests would be carried out to determine whether Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar had in fact been killed.
Mali descended into chaos in the wake of a March 2012 coup, as Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels capitalized on the power vacuum to seize a Texas-sized triangle of desert territory in the north.
France launched its intervention in its former colony on January 11 to stop the Islamists from advancing on the capital, Bamako.
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