French forces kill leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Report
French forces have killed al-Qaeda’s North Africa chief, France’s defence minister said on Friday, capping a seven-year manhunt.
Algerian AbdelMalek Droukdel died on Thursday in Northern Mali, near the Algerian border, where the group has bases from which it has launched attacks across the sub-Saharan Sahel region, Defence Minister Florence Parly said.
"Many close associates" of Droukdel - who commanded several affiliate militant groups across the lawless region -were also "neutralised," she added.
The United States said it had provided intelligence to help track down Droukdel.
"US Africa Command was able to assist with intelligence and... support to fix the target," spokesman Colonel Chris Karns told CNN on Friday.
There was no immediate confirmation of his death from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM.
Groups affiliated with AQIM have claimed responsibility for a string of attacks on civil and military targets across the Sahel, contributing to a cycle of violence that threatens to destabilise countries in the region, including Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
France, meanwhile, has deployed more than 5,000 troops to push back the militants, which some say has only emboldened the fighters further.
In 2012, key cities fell under the control of AQIM-linked militants, as they participated in a ethnic Toureg-led rebellion, leading to a French-led military intervention.
Northern Mali is the site of frequent clashes between militant groups, and a transit point for drugs and weapons. It is also a haven for people smugglers.
According to the UN, Droukdel was an explosives expert and manufactured devices that killed hundreds of civilians in attacks on public places.
He was sentenced to death in Algeria in 2013 for his involvement in the bombings of a government building and offices of the UN's refugee committee in Algiers that killed 26 people and wounded 177.
Born in 1971 in a poor neighbourhood of Algiers, Droukdel took part in the founding in Algeria of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, elected Algerian president in 1999, managed to convince most of the armed groups in the country to lay down their weapons.
The GSPC, however, refused to do so and Droukdel decided to approach al-Qaeda.
Droukdel's death is a symbolic coup for the French, a military source told AFP.
He had remained a threat in the region, capable of financing militant movements, even though his leadership had been contested, the source added.
His death, and that of other al-Qaeda figures, could leave the group disorganised in the Sahel.
France also claimed on Friday to have captured a leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) group, which carries out frequent attacks over Niger's western borders.
"On May 19, French forces captured Mohamed el Mrabat, veteran militant in the Sahel region and an important cadre in EIGS," Parly said on Twitter.
Operations against EIGS "the other great terrorist threat in the region" are continuing, said Parly.