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France kills senior al-Qaeda commander in Mali operation

French foreign minister says Yahya Abou El Hamame was 'mastermind and financier' of several terror attacks
A French soldier, participating in Operation Barkhane, patrols over Mali (AFP)

French soldiers have killed a senior al-Qaeda commander in an operation in Mali on Thursday, France's Defence Minister Florence Parly has announced.

Yahya Abou El Hamame, an Algerian member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was allegedly responsible for the kidnapping of several Westerners in North and West Africa.

A ministry statement said he was "the mastermind and financier of several attacks".

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El Hamame, the name used by the 40-year-old born Djamel Okacha, was killed on Thursday when French land and air forces ambushed a convoy he was travelling in north of Timbuktu, Parly said.

Several other militants were also killed during the operation, she added.

El Hamame reportedly served as AQIM's "governor" in Timbuktu when the city was held by Islamist rebels from April 2012 to January 2013.

He was believed to be second in command of the "Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims" (Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin - JNIM), an organisation created when three al-Qaeda affiliates in Western Africa, including AQIM, merged in early 2017.

The group, which is thought to have as many as 2,000 fighters, opposes the military presence of France and other Western countries in West Africa, according to the Washington, DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks to disrupt Mali's election last July, and more recent strikes in Burkina Faso.

Thursday's operation was announced as Parly, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian were scheduled to visit Mali.

France has maintained a military presence in Mali, a former French colony, since 2012 when Tuareg rebels took control of the north of the country and declared their independence.

In 2014, the country deployed some 4,500 soldiers as part of the French-led Operation Barkhane, a cross-border counter-terrorism effort involving Mali and other former French colonies of Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, known collectively as the G5.

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