N’DJAMENA, Chad: Chadian President Idriss Debyannounced Friday that Chadian troops fighting to dislodge an al-Qaida affiliate in northern Mali killed one of the group’s leading commanders, Abou Zeid.
The death of the Algerian warlord, a feared radical leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb behind the kidnapping of several Westerners, could not immediately be verified. 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 White House had no immediate reaction to the announcement. The U.S. has offered drones and intelligence help to the French-led operation.
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.
Deby said, “It was our soldiers who killed two big Islamist chiefs in northern Mali,” including Abou Zeid, according to the spokesman.
The spokesman insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak ahead of an announcement on state television on the matter. It was unclear when it was expected, and the spokesman gave no further details.
Chadian television showed images of Friday’s tribute to the fallen soldiers from Chad, a row of coffins draped with the blue, yellow and red flags, and dignitaries from Chad and neighboring countries.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who led one of the most violent brigades of al-Qaida’s North African franchise and helped lead the extremist takeover of northern Mali, was thought to be 47 years old.
He was a pillar of the southern realm of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, 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 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.
The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back militants linked to Abou Zeid and other extremist groups who had imposed harsh Islamic rule in 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.”
Earlier reports had said Abou Zeid was killed by French forces, which would be a victory for France. But French officials have been very cautious about the claims of his death, especially because of the number of hostages believed scattered around the same region where the fighting is under way.
French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said Friday night that French and Chadian soldiers are working together in a general sense but they are not always “side by side” in every operation. So he could not say whether French soldiers were involved in the operation that Deby says killed Abou Zeid.
Abou Zeid was a powerful and shadowy figure, and mystery surrounds even 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.
He was viewed as a disciplined radical with close ties to the overall AQIM boss, Abdelmalek Droukdel, who oversees operations from his post in northern Algeria.
Abou Zeid fought with a succession of Islamist insurgency movements trying to topple the Algerian state since 1992. He reportedly joined the brutal, and now defunct, Armed Islamic Group that massacred whole villages in northern Algeria, then joined the Salafist Group for Call and Combat that morphed into al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in 2006.
An Algerian court tried him in absentia in January 2012, convicting him of belonging to an international terrorist group and sentencing him to life in prison.
Abou Zeid was an arch rival of Moktar Belmoktar, known as “the one-eyed sheik” after he lost an eye in combat in Afghanistan. Belmoktar’s profile soared after a mid-January attack on a huge Algerian gas plant and a mass hostage-taking which left 37 hostages and 29 attackers dead.
The two of them spent years building up the AQIM presence in Mali, but it was Abou Zeid who was considered the crueler of the two. After the militants took over Mali’s north, Abou Zeid took control of the fabled city of Timbuktu, meting out justice according to his extremist view of Islamic law.
Pounding by French forces in January quickly pushed Islamists out of major cities, including Timbuktu, and to the rocky desert in the northeast.