Al-Qaeda's most senior commander is rumored to be killed in Mali raid
Abou Zeid has probably been killed in Mali clashes
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Al-Qaeda’s senior field commander in the Sahara, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, has probably been killed in Mali, the head of France’s joint chiefs of staff said on Monday.
Edouard Guillaud’s remarks are the first indication from the French government that Abou Zeid died in fighting in the rugged north of Mali.
“It is likely, but it is only likely,” Guillaud said when asked about the killing on Europe 1 radio, adding that French authorities cannot “have any certainty right now because we have not recovered the body.”
Chad’s army, which is fighting alongside French forces in northern Mali, said last week that it killed Abou Zeid and another al Qaeda commander in the area, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
France launched a whirlwind assault to retake Mali’s vast northern desert region from AQIM and other Islamist rebels on Jan. 11 after a plea from Mali’s caretaker government. The military intervention dislodged the rebels from several main towns they had occupied and drove them back into desert wilds.
Overwhelmed by the superior fire-power of the French air force and special forces, Islamist hardliners in northern Mali pulled out of the towns they had ruthlessly ruled for nine months, imposing an extreme form of sharia law.
They regrouped and reverted to guerrilla tactics, launching hit-and-run attacks against French or pro-government forces and resorting to suicide attacks.
AQIM has earned tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments for Western hostages taken to its strongholds in northern Mali.
Abou Zeid has been regarded as one of AQIM’s most ruthless operators. He is believed to have executed British national Edwin Dyer in 2009 and a 78-year-old Frenchman, Michel Germaneau, in 2010.
Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, in an account of his kidnapping by another Islamist cell in the Sahara, recounted how Abou Zeid refused to give medication to two hostages suffering from dysentery, one of whom had been stung by a scorpion.