PARIS (AP) — France said Monday for the first time that a key al-Qaida leader in Mali is probably dead. An activist close to the terror network's north Africa branch was also reported to have confirmed the death of Algerian-born warlord Abou Zeid.
In recent days, key French ally Chad has said Chadian troops in northern Mali killed Abou Zeid and another radical with links to al-Qaida, Moktar Belmoktar, who was behind a hostage-taking of foreign workers at an Algerian gas plant in January that left dozens dead.
If confirmed, their killings could mark an important turning point for France and its African allies in their quest to root out jihadists who took control of northern Mali last year. However, French officials say another top leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is still on the loose and wanted even more.
French forces launched a blistering military operation in January to drive back the extremists, while being backed up by Chadian and Malian troops. The fighting now is focused on the Ifoghas mountain range in northern Mali near the Algerian border.
French officials repeatedly refused to comment after reports emerged last week about the killing of Abou Zeid, a feared leader of AQIM who was said to be behind the kidnapping of several Westerners. They also declined to comment on reports of Belmoktar's death.
On Monday, France's top military chief, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, said French forces can't immediately inspect the damage from every laser-guided bomb that they fire on militants' positions. He expressed caution about claims that Belmoktar had died — noting unverified chatter on Internet jihadist forums saying he was still alive.
But he suggested that Abou Zeid was likely dead.
"It's probable, but it's only probable," said Guillaud, the head of France's joint chiefs of staff, on Europe-1 radio. "We cannot be certain for the moment — it would be good news — because we haven't recovered the body."
Later Monday, a news website in Mali's western neighbor Mauritania that is known for close contacts with groups inspired by extremist Islam said that Abou Zeid was killed by a French airstrike in the Tigharghar area of the Ifoghas. The site was citing an unnamed activist close to AQIM. That appeared to contradict an announcement on Friday by Chad's President Idriss Deby that Chadian troops had killed him.
The website, Sahara Media, which is often contacted directly by members of extremist groups operating in Africa's arid Sahel region, also quoted the activist as saying Belmoktar was still alive and nowhere near the fighting involving Chadian troops. He said the Algerian militant would soon make a statement.
Chad's military chief, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue, said Saturday that his troops had killed Belmoktar, the suspected mastermind of a hostage-taking at the Ain Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January that left at least 36 foreigners dead. Known as the "one-eyed," Belmoktar's profile soared after the siege.
In Algeria, where the first report of the killing of Abou Zeid emerged, Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia refused Monday to confirm or deny the deaths of the two Algerian warlords. "We hope they are dead," he told journalists at the opening of the parliament, without elaborating.
For Guillaud, "there's at least one (jihadist leader) who is more important than they are, who is named Yahya Abou Elhamam and called the 'Emir of the Grand Sahara' overall." Elhamam, who is believed to walk with a limp and have had close ties to Abou Zeid, was formerly based near the fabled Malian city of Timbuktu.
Elhamam took over the title of "Emir of the Sahara" after Nabil Makhloufi — known by his alias Nabil Alqama — was killed in a car accident near the city of Gao in September, according to a spokesman for the al-Qaida-affiliated group MUJAO at the time.
"Then there other (jihadists) who particularly interest us because they are the logistics bosses," said Guillaud, hinting that one of the French tactics is to dry up the flow of supplies the extremists need to survive in the hot and arid Ifoghas region. "Without water, without fuel, you can't live in this area."
The revelations came as British Foreign Secretary William Hague visited Mali to discuss the political process in the West African nation, where a coup last year left a political vacuum that allowed the extremists to seize control of the north. He met with Mali's president and prime minister, as well as top officials in an African-led intervention force and a European Union training mission in Mali.
"To ensure long-term stability, it is clear there needs to be a more inclusive political process in Mali as well as work to address longer-term development needs of Mali's people," Hague was quoted by the Foreign Office as saying. He encouraged the Malian government "to take forward the critical task of political reconciliation with legitimate groups in the north," a reference to nomadic Touaregs seeking independence for the region and not linked to radicals.
Western nations such as France, Britain and the United States hope Mali can hold elections in July if the security can improve in this impoverished African country. Hague said Mali is "at the heart of" complex political and security challenges that "have the potential to affect the wider region."
President Francois Hollande has expressed hopes of beginning to pull out the 4,000 French troops now in Mali by the end of this month and handing security over to African troops. But French officials told The Associated Press last week that France can expect to be in Mali through at least July. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the delicate matter on the record.
Guillaud said the thousands of French and African troops face some 1,200 to 1,500 "real combatants" in Mali. Still, Guillaud said the French-led operation is "breaking the kidneys" of AQIM.
French officials say hundreds of radicals, who terrified Malians by applying a harsh version of Islamic law that included cutting off alleged criminals' hands, have been killed in the French-led onslaught. Three French soldiers and at least two dozen Chadian troops have died in the fighting, officials have said.
Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali, Cassandra Vinograd in London, Paul Schemm in Rabat, Morocco, and Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.