PARIS: Efforts were under way yesterday to confirm the killing of a notorious Al Qaeda commander during fighting with French troops in Mali, with Washington calling reports of his death “very credible”.
Algeria’s independent Ennahar TV reported this week that Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a chief of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed in northern Mali along with 40 other Islamist militants.
In Washington, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity said reports of his death seemed “very credible” and that if Abou Zeid was indeed slain “it would be a significant blow to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
French officials have so far reacted with caution, with President Francois Hollande saying yesterday: “Reports are circulating, it is not up to me to confirm them.”
The killing of Abou Zeid, a ruthless militant linked with kidnappings and executions of Westerners, would be a major success for French forces, who intervened in Mali in mid-January to help oust Islamist rebels then in control of the north.
Algeria’s El Khabar newspaper reported yesterday that authorities there had carried out DNA tests to try to confirm Abou Zeid’s death.
“The security services are comparing DNA taken from two close relatives of Abou Zeid with samples taken from the remains of a body supplied by French forces”, it said.
French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem warned that reports of his death were so far only hypothetical.
“Our forces are engaged in operations which are extremely tough, merciless fighting,” she told France 2 television. “We should be extremely cautious with information such as this one. For the moment it is not confirmed.”
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, a 46-year-old 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 is a former smuggler who embraced radical Islam in the 1990s and became one of AQIM’s key leaders. He is 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 is believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2010.
He is thought to have about 200 seasoned fighters under his command, mainly Algerians, Mauritanians and Malians, who are well-equipped and highly mobile.