|Mokhtar Belmokhtar (AFP)
N’Djamena, March 3 (Reuters): Chadian soldiers in Mali have killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaida commander who masterminded a bloody hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, Chad’s military said on Saturday.
The death of one of the world’s most wanted jihadists would be a major blow to Qaida in the region and to Islamist rebels already forced to flee towns they had seized in northern Mali by an offensive by French and African troops.
“On Saturday, March 2, at noon, Chadian armed forces operating in northern Mali completely destroyed a terrorist base. ... The toll included several dead terrorists, including their leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar” Chad’s armed forces said in a statement read on national television.
On Friday, Chad’s president, Idriss Deby, said his soldiers had killed another al Qaida commander, Adelhamid Abou Zeid, among 40 militants who died in an operation in the same area as Saturday’s assault — Mali’s Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border.
France — which has used jet strikes against the militants’ mountain hideouts — has declined to confirm the killing of either Abou Zeid or Belmokhtar.
In Washington, the Obama administration said the White House could not confirm the killing of Belmokhtar.
Analysts said the death of two of al Qaida’s most feared commanders in the Sahara desert would mark a significant blow to Mali’s Islamist rebellion.
“Both men have extensive knowledge of northern Mali and parts of the broader Sahel and deep social and other connections in northern Mali, and the death of both in such a short amount of time will likely have an impact on militant operations,” said Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based analyst who follows al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Anne Giudicelli, managing director of security consultancy Terrorisc, said the al Qaida commanders’ deaths — if confirmed — would temporarily disrupt the Islamist rebel network but would also raise concern over the fate of seven French hostages believed to be held by Islamists in northern Mali.
Chad is one of several African nations that have contributed forces to a French-led military intervention in Mali aimed at ridding its vast northern desert of Islamist rebels who seized the area nearly a year ago following a coup in the capital.
Western and African countries are worried that al Qaida could use the zone to launch international attacks and strengthen ties with African Islamist groups like al Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Belmokhtar, 40, who lost an eye while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s, claimed responsibility for the seizure of dozens of foreign hostages at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January in which more than 60 people were killed.
That attack put Algeria back on the map of global jihad, 20 years after its civil war, a bloody Islamist struggle for power. It also burnished Belmokhtar’s jihadi credentials by showing that al Qaida remained a potent threat to Western interests despite US forces killing Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011.
Before In Amenas, some intelligence experts had assumed Algerian-born Belmokhtar had drifted away from jihad in favour of kidnapping and smuggling weapons and cigarettes in the Sahara where he earned the nickname “Marlboro Man”.
In a rare interview with a Mauritanian news service in late 2011, Belmokhtar paid homage to bin Laden and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahri. He cited al Qaida’s traditional global preoccupations, including Iraq, Afghanistan and the fate of the Palestinians, and stressed the need to “attack Western and Jewish economic and military interests”.
He shared command of field operations for AQIM — al Qaida’s North African franchise — with Abou Zeid, although there was talk the two did not get along and were competing for power.
A former smuggler turned jihadi, Algerian-born Abou Zeid imposed a violent form of Sharia, Islamic law, in the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.