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Conflicting reports on al-Qaeda commander

Third French soldier killed in fierce fighting in northern Mali

Veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar in an undated still image taken from a video released by Sahara Media in January. Photo: Reuters

Veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar in an undated still image taken from a video released by Sahara Media in January. Photo: Reuters

France said yesterday a third French soldier had been killed in fierce fighting with Islamist rebels in northern Mali but could not confirm Chad’s report that its troops had killed the al-Qaeda commander behind January’s mass hostage-taking in Algeria.

We are facing a very fanatical adversary. They are fighting without giving ground

A whirlwind seven-week campaign has driven al-Qaeda-linked fighters who took over northern Mali last April into mountain and desert redoubts, where they are being hunted by hundreds of French, Chadian and Malian troops.

France’s defence ministry said 26-year-old Corporal Cedric Charenton was shot dead on Saturday during an assault on an Islamist hideout in the desolate Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near Algeria, the third French soldier killed in the campaign.

French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said some 15 Islamists were killed in some of the fiercest fighting during the campaign so far but that he could not confirm Chad’s claim that its troops had killed al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar at a nearby camp in the remote Ametetai valley.

“We are facing a very fanatical adversary,” Burkhard said, noting the Islamists were armed with rocket and grenade-launchers as well as machine guns, AK47 assault rifles and heavy weapons. “They are fighting without giving ground.”

The death of Belmokhtar, nicknamed ‘the uncatchable’, has been reported several times in the past. The latest came a day after Chadian President Idriss Deby said Chadian forces had also killed Adelhamid Abou Zeid, al-Qaeda’s other senior field commander in the Sahara.

The killing of Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid, if confirmed, would eliminate al Qaeda’s leadership in Mali and raise questions over the fate of seven French hostages thought to be held by the group in northern Mali, an area the size of Texas. Belmokhtar, whose smuggling activities in the Sahara earned him the nickname “Mr Marlboro”, became one of the world’s most wanted jihadis after masterminding the raid on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in which more than 60 people were killed, including dozens of foreign hostages.

Abou Zeid is regarded as one of AQIM’s most ruthless operators, responsible for the kidnapping of more than 20 Western hostages since 2008. He is believed to have killed British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.

France and Mali have said they could not confirm his death.

French radio RFI and Algerian daily El Khabar have reported that DNA tests were being conducted on members of Abou Zeid’s family to confirm whether a body recovered after fighting in Adrar des Ifoghas was indeed the Islamist leader.

‘Militant says Belmokhtar is still alive’

Algerian al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reported killed by Chadian troops, is alive, a monitoring service that tracks online militant forums reported a contributor as saying later yesterday.

An unidentified participant in militant website discussions said in a message posted on several forums that Belmoktar was “alive and well and leading the battles himself”, the US-based SITE service reported.

The message said Belmokhtar would issue a message confirming the news, SITE reported.

The online participant did not indicate how he learned of Belmoktar’s status, SITE reported.

Ahrar Press, an independent Arabic media organisation, also reported that a source in Belmoktar’s group denied claims of his death, SITE reported.

On Saturday, Chad said its forces had killed Belmokhtar in the same part of Mali that they had killed Adelhamid Abou Zeid, al-Qaeda’s other senior field commander in the Sahara, a few days previously.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has pledged to avenge a French assault on its fighters in Mali, which Paris said it launched to prevent its former colony becoming a launchpad for wider al-Qaeda attacks.

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