BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — A spokesman for an al-Qaida-linked group in northern Mali wants to surrender and be extradited to face trial in his home country of Mauritania, according to a news agency there.
The Noukachott Information Agency, or ANI, posted the report late Wednesday saying Sanda Ould Boumana intended to hand himself over to authorities in Algeria.
The ANI website is frequently used by al-Qaida's North Africa chapter to post messages. It was not possible to independently verify the claim.
Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Abou Almaaly, the director of the news agency, said it was contacted by Boumana by telephone.
"He appeared very tired and told us he had walked 80 kilometers (50 miles) on foot to approach the Algerian border," Ould Abou Almaaly told The Associated Press.
Ould Abou Almaaly had previously met the Ansar Dine spokesman and said he recognized his voice. Ould Boumana said the man survived an assassination attempt Tuesday in northern Mali, and then decided he would rather be turned over to face trial in Mauritania.
The development suggests a further weakening within the Ansar Dine terror group three months after the French launched a military operation to oust the militants. The group's top leadership has gone into hiding and some have been killed in the combat operations.
Ould Boumana had served as a spokesman for the founder of the Ansar Dine group, Iyad Ag Ghali.
The group and Tuareg rebels took northern Mali in the wake of a military coup in Mali's capital last year that left government soldiers stationed in the north in disarray. Ansar Dine later implemented its strict interpretation of Islamic law known as Shariah, meting out punishments that included public executions, amputations and whippings.
The French-led military operation launched in January forced Ould Boumana and other top brass of Ansar Dine into hiding in the remote desert of northern Mali.
On Thursday, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said the tempo of the French operation was slowing.
France has been talking about reducing its presence in its former colony in the coming months, but also has said it aims to keep about 1,000 soldiers there.
"Are there still terrorists in Mali? I think it's clear there are still terrorists in Mali," he said in Paris. "It's clear that the threat that was initially defined has greatly declined."
Burkhard says French forces in recent days flew home to France five Rafale and Mirage jets from skies over Mali, leaving nine French fighter planes still in the region. He said "just under" 4,000 French troops are involved in the campaign that began Jan. 11.
Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Paris contributed to this report.