Chad's President Idriss Deby has claimed that Chadian troops in Mali have killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, one of al Qaeda's main leaders in Africa. France which led the intervention in Mali says it cannot confirm the claim.
Deby said Chadian forces pursuing al Qaeda-linked insurgents in Mali's northern border region - alongside French special forces - had "killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid."
Algeria's Ennahar television in a report on Thursday had claimed Abou Zeid had been killed, reportedly several days ago, in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range, near Mali's border with Algeria.
On Friday, French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem urged caution, saying France could neither confirm nor deny reports about a demise of Abou Zeid.
French RFI radio and the Algerian newspaper El Khabar said DNA from Abou Zeid's family members was being used to check a body recovered near Mali's northern border with Algeria.
Formerly controlled Timbuktu
The commander of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) imposed a violent form of Sharia, or Islamic law, when Islamists captured Mali's ancient town of Timbuktu until evicted by French-led forces in January.
The group's presence stoked fears worldwide that Mali's north could become a haven for extremists.
Abou Zeid, a smuggler turned jihadist, was also blamed for numerous kidnappings of Westerners said to have earned the group tens of millions of euros. Several hostages were executed – a Briton in 2009 and a Frenchman in 2010.
Located in mountain area
The news agency Reuters, citing sources in the northern Malian town of Kidal, said Tuareg rebels, who were working with French forces, had located Abou Zeid's fighter in mountains and passed on the coordinates for French jets to strike.
"They were hidden in mountain caves and were building bombs for suicide attacks when they were killed," said one source in Kidal.
Still at large and on a US global terrorist list are Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the mass hostage-taking at an Algerian natural gas plant last month, and the Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag Ghali.
ipj/dr (dpa, AFP, Reuters)