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Al Qaeda's top commander in Mali has reportedly been killed
Senior Al Qaeda commander reportedly killed
March 2nd, 2013
Photo: Reportedly killed: Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was one of the key leaders in Al Qaeda's African arm. (AFP/Sahara Media, file photo)
Related Story: France launches ground campaign against Mali rebels
Al Qaeda's top commander in Mali has reportedly been killed in fighting during the seven-week French-led intervention against Islamic insurgents.
Chad president Idriss Deby said Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a Mali-based operative in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed on February 22 during deadly fighting between Chadian troops and Islamist fighters.
"On February 22, we lost several soldiers in the Ifogha mountains after destroying the jihadists' base. This was the first time there was a direct confrontation with the jihadists," he said.
"Our soldiers killed two jihadist chiefs including Abou Zeid."
Other reports suggest the 46-year-old may have been killed by a French military bombardment.
Algerian security services are said to be taking DNA samples from relatives at France's request.
Analysts say if they confirm the militant's death, it will raise questions over the state of several French hostages who are widely believed to have remained in Abou Zeid's custody to date.
French and west African troops have been hunting down rebels they dislodged from northern Mali's main cities following a lightning advance against the Islamists.
Abou Zeid, whose real name is Mohamed Ghedir, was often seen in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao after the Islamists took control of northern Mali last year and sparked fears the region could become a haven for extremists.
An Algerian born near the border with Libya, Abou Zeid was a former smuggler who embraced radical Islam in the 1990s and became one of AQIM's key leaders.
He was suspected of being behind a series of brutal kidnappings in several countries, including of British national Edwin Dyer, who was abducted in Niger and executed in 2009, and of 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, who was executed in 2010.
Abou Zeid was believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2010.
He was thought to have about 200 seasoned fighters under his command, mainly Algerians, Mauritanians and Malians, who were well-equipped and highly mobile.
An Algiers court last year sentenced Abou Zeid in absentia to life in prison for having formed an international armed group involved in the kidnapping of foreigners.
Five other members of his family were jailed for 10 years each.
He was seen as a true religious fanatic and more uncompromising than some other leaders of north African armed Islamist groups, such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of January's attack on an Algerian natural-gas facility that left 37 foreign hostages dead.
On the ground on Friday, Malian troops arrested about 50 people near Gao on an island in the Niger river that was used as a hideout by armed Islamists, military sources told AFP.