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AL QAEDA

Paris confirms death of Al-Qaeda head Abou Zeid

France confirmed Saturday that one of the key leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, had been killed in fighting with French-led forces in northern Mali.

Paris confirms death of Al-Qaeda head Abou Zeid
Phot: AFP Photo/Sahara Media

Considered one of the most radical leaders in Al-Qaeda's north African branch, the 46-year-old is credited with having significantly expanded the terrorist group's field of operation to Tunisia and Niger, and for kidnapping activities across the region.

French President Francois Hollande "confirms Abdelhamid Abou Zeid's death with certainty during fighting led by the French army in the Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali in late February", the Elysee palace said in a statement.

"The elimination of one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel."

An advisor to Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traore called the announcement of Abou Zeid's death "excellent news". "It is a blow for terrorists," he said.

Abou Zeid's death was first announced on March 1st by Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno, whose army is fighting alongside French troops to secure the Ifoghas.

Two days later, the Chadian army also announced it had killed Algerian Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the other historic leader of Al-Qaeda's north African branch.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had said after fierce fighting in the Ifoghas in late February that DNA tests would be carried out to determine whether the two had in fact been killed.

But France has still not confirmed the death of Belmokhtar, who split from Al-Qaeda and masterminded a January raid on an Algerian gas plant that left 38 hostages dead.

A US official told AFP Saturday that Belmokhtar's status was still "not clearly established".

Abou Zeid had a reputation for being a severe, aloof character with an unflinching capacity for violence when required.

Born in Debdeb in Algeria, close to the border with Libya, Abou Zeid was a young activist in the FIS Islamist movement that won the country's first democratic elections in 1991 but was denied power. He then disappeared underground for most of the 1990s.

He re-emerged spectacularly in 2003 as second in command of the GSPC group which kidnapped 32 foreigners in southern Algeria, and that would later, along with several other organisations, evolve into AQIM.

In June 2009, his men kidnapped British tourist Edwin Dyer. According to multiple witnesses, Abou Zeid personally beheaded him.

French aid worker Pierre Camatte, who was held by Abou Zeid's henchmen for 89 days at the end of 2009, said the leader's death would severely hamper AQIM.

"The organisation has been decapitated," he said.

Camatte met the man responsible for his kidnapping four times and recalls a distinctly cold character. "The other kidnappers consulted him all the time but he mixed very little with them," the aid worker told AFP.

Latterly, Abou Zeid — whose real name is Mohamed Ghdir according to Algerian court documents — was considered a deputy to AQIM's "Saharan emir" Yahia Djouadi and commanded a katiba, or battalion, of fighters from Mauritania, Algeria and Mali that was known as Tareq Ibn Ziyad.

Mali descended into chaos in the wake of a March 2012 coup, as Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels capitalised on the power vacuum to seize a Texas-sized triangle of desert territory in the north.

France launched its intervention in its former colony on January 11th to stop the Islamists from advancing on the capital, Bamako.

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TERRORISM

‘Terrorists’ attack French soldiers in troubled Mali

French soldiers operating in troubled northern Mali were targeted by "terrorists" in an ambush on Sunday, the third attack in the country in just days.

'Terrorists' attack French soldiers in troubled Mali
Smoke and flames ascend from an army armoured vehicle in Gao, northwestern Mali, following an explosion on Sunday. Photo: STRINGER / AFP
The ambush underscores the fragile security situation in the West African nation as it prepares to go to the polls on July 29th.
 
A spokesman for the French military said there were no deaths among the French troops but it was not known if there were other casualties in the attack, which took place in the restive Gao region.
 
“French soldiers of the Barkhane military operation were ambushed by terrorists” near the town of Bourem, a Western military source told AFP, referring to the French mission in the country. 
 
A Malian military source confirmed the incident, which came two days after a deadly attack on the Mali headquarters of a five-nation regional force known as G5 Sahel.
 
Fatouma Wangara, a resident of Gao, said the French convoy was clearly targeted by a suicide car bomb.
 
“An armoured vehicle blocked the way and the car blew up,” she said.
 
Another resident told AFP that the area around the ambush had been sealed off by French soldiers.
 
The attack came as over 40 African heads of state are meeting for an African Union summit in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott with security high on the agenda.
 
'Hit the heart' of regional security
 
On Friday, a suicide attack on the headquarters of the regional Sahel force known as G5 killed two soldiers and a civilian in the Malian town of Savare. The Al-Qaeda-linked Support Group for Islam and Muslims, the main jihadist alliance in the Sahel, claimed Friday's bombing in a telephone call to the Mauritanian news agency Al-Akhbar. And on Saturday, four Malian soldiers were killed when their vehicle drove over a landmine in the central Mopti region.
 
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, whose country is part of the G5 and is hosting the two-day AU summit, warned earlier that security failings were hampering the work of the Sahel force. He said Friday's attack “hit the heart” of the region's security and lashed out at a lack of international help.
 
The G5 aims to have a total of 5,000 troops from five nations — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — but has faced funding problems. It operates alongside France's 4,000 troops in the troubled “tri-border” area where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet, and alongside the UN's 12,000-strong MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali.
 
Mali's unrest stems from a 2012 ethnic Tuareg separatist uprising, which was exploited by jihadists in order to take over key cities in the north. The extremists were largely driven out in a French-led military operation launched in January 2013.  But large stretches of the country remain out of the control of the foreign and Malian forces, which are frequent targets of attacks, despite a peace accord signed with Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.
 
The violence has also spilled over into both Burkina Faso and Niger.