French unable to confirm killing of Belmokhtar
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.
A seven-week campaign has driven rebels 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.
French army spokesman Col Thierry Burkhard said 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,” Col 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 and analysts share caution shown by Paris in confirming his demise.
The latest report came a day after Chadian president Idriss Deby said Chadian forces had also killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, al-Qaeda’s other senior field commander in the Sahara.
The killings, 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.
Rudy Attalah, a former senior US counterterrorism official focused on Africa and now head of risk analysis firm White Mountain research, was sceptical about Chad’s claim.
He said Belmokhtar had in the past carefully avoided operating in the same area as Abou Zeid and was known as an elusive operator who shifted through the desert in small, mobile groups of fighters.
“I don’t think they killed him at all,” he said, adding Chad might be seeking to divert domestic attention from its 26 soldiers killed in the operation. “Deby is under a lot of pressure. Announcing these killings redeems his troops.”
An unidentified participant in militant website discussions said in a message posted on several jihadi forums that Belmokhtar was “alive and well and leading the battles himself”, the US-based Site monitoring service reported yesterday. The poster added that Belmokhtar would soon issue a statement himself.