Chadian President Idriss Deby announced Friday that soldiers from his country killed one of al-Qaeda's leading commanders during a battle in northern Mali.
The death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an Algerian warlord and feared radical leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), could not immediately be verified. It is believed Abou Zeid was responsible for the kidnapping of several Westerners, and that his death would be a big blow to his group and its growing influence in North and West Africa.
Officials in Mali and in France, which is leading an international military intervention in Mali against Islamic extremists linked to AQIM, could not confirm the death.
The Chadian president's spokesman said that Deby announced the death of Abou Zeid during a ceremony Friday for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting in Mali. The spokesman insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak ahead of an announcement on state television on the matter. He gave no further details.
The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back al-Qaeda-linked militants who had imposed harsh Islamic rule in a large part of the vast country and who were seen as an international terrorist threat. The extremists took control over northern Mali in a power vacuum after a coup last year, and had started moving toward the capital.
France is trying to rally other African troops to help in the military campaign, since Mali's military is weak and poor. Chadian troops have offered the most robust reinforcement.
For the past 10 days, French military, along with Chadian forces, have been locked in a weeklong battle against extremists in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains of northern Mali that has left scores dead.
A French presidential aide said the French government would not comment on the Chadian president's announcement. Earlier, French President Francois Hollande said: "Information is circulating. It is not for me to confirm this, because we need to follow through the operation to the end."
Abou Zeid tied to death of at least 2 Europeans
Abou Zeid, who led one of the most violent brigades of al-Qaeda's North African franchise and helped lead the extremist takeover of the north, was thought to be 47 years old.
He was a pillar of the southern realm of the AQIM and responsible for the death of at least two European hostages. He was believed to be holding four French nationals kidnapped two years ago at a uranium mine in Niger. The fate of those hostages, working for French company Areva, was unclear Friday night.
Abou Zeid also held a Frenchman released in February 2010, and another who was executed that July. He's also been linked to the execution of a British hostage in 2009.
There is uncertainty about his real name. Along with his nom de guerre, Abou Zeid had an alias, Mosab Abdelouadoud, and nicknames, the emir of the south and the little emir, due to his diminutive size. But the Algerian press has raised questions about his legal identity — Abid Hamadou or Mohamed Ghedir.