French forces kill al Qaeda's North Africa chief in Mali, defence minister says
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French forces have killed the leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel, in northern Mali, France's Defence Minister Florence Parly said Friday.
Droukdel was killed on Thursday near the Algerian border, where the group has bases from which it has carried out attacks and abductions of Westerners in the sub-Saharan Sahel zone, Parly said.
"Many close associates" of Droukdel – who commanded several affiliate jihadist groups across the lawless region – were also "neutralised", she added.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged from a group started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists, who in 2007 pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden's al Qaeda network.
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.
The US 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.
The group has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks on troops and civilians across the Sahel, including a 2016 attack on an upmarket hotel and restaurant in Burkina Faso that killed 30 people, mainly Westerners.
France has deployed more than 5,000 troops to combat jihadist groups in the region – a largely lawless expanse stretching over Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – where drugs and arms flow through porous borders.
Northern Mali is the site of frequent clashes between rival armed groups as well as a haven for jihadist activity.
In 2012 key Malian cities fell under the control of jihadist groups linked to al Qaeda, which exploited the unrest resulting from an ethnic Tuareg-led rebel uprising. A French-led military intervention was launched in January 2013 to beat back the Islamists.
Islamic State official captured
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 jihadist 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.
Mali is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in 2012 and has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives since.
Despite the presence of thousands of French and UN troops, the conflict has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
A source told AFP that some 500 jihadist fighters had been killed or captured by French troops in the region in recent months, among them several leading figures including commanders and recruiters.
Droukdel's death is a symbolic coup for the French, a military source said. He had remained a threat in the region, capable of financing jihadist 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.
Born in 1971 in a poor neighbourhood of Algiers, Droukdel took helped found the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in Algeria. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, elected president in 1999, managed to convince most Algerian armed groups to lay down their weapons. The GSPC, however, refused and Droukdel decided to ally with al Qaeda.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
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