By Lamine Chikhi
ALGIERS (Reuters) - Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian founding member of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is believed to have been killed in clashes between Islamist militants and Tuareg-led separatist rebels in north Mali, Algeria's Ennahar TV reported on Thursday.
One Algerian security source told Reuters he was trying to confirm the death of Belmokhtar, who headed one of AQIM's two battalions in Algeria's southern desert bordering Mali.
But Ennahar TV, a private Algerian channel known for its reliable reporting on security affairs, quoted several unknown sources as confirming Belmokhtar's death.
"All my sources are saying that Belmokhtar has been killed in the clash," Ennahar's director, Anis Rahmani, a terrorism expert, told Reuters.
AQIM has yet to confirm the death.
Nicknamed the "uncatchable", Belmokhtar is believed to be linked to the kidnappings of foreigners that have taken place in remote areas in recent years. He has been sentenced by an Algerian court to life imprisonment in absentia in connection with the killing of 10 Algerian customs agents in 2007.
The situation in northern Mali is chaotic after weeks of tension between the secular Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and better-armed local Islamists who helped it take control of the northern two-thirds of Mali in April but whose goal is to impose Islamic law.
Belmokhtar is believed to have died during a battle that killed at least 20 people on Wednesday night in the north Mali town of Gao, where the Islamists seized the MNLA headquarters, the source said. The Islamists have since declared they are in control of northern Mali.
"It seems that Belmokhtar was in the region when he clashed with a group belonging to the MNLA," Rahmani said.
(Editing by Lin Noueihed and Tim Pearce)