French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, left, and Mali’s Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly, right, pose for journalists after a meeting in Lyon, central France, Tuesday, March 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani)
PARIS (AP) — The al-Qaida-linked North African warlord Abou Zeid was killed in combat with French troops in Mali in February, France said Saturday, ending weeks of uncertainty about whether one of the group’s leading commanders was dead.
In a statement Saturday the office of French President Francois Hollande said the death was “definitively confirmed” and that Abou Zeid’s death “marks an important step in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel.”
Chad’s president had said earlier this month that Chadian troops had killed Abou Zeid while fighting to dislodge an al-Qaida affiliate in northern Mali. French officials have maintained for weeks that Abou Zeid was “probably” dead but waited to conduct DNA tests to verify.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, thought to be 47, was a pillar of the southern realm of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, responsible for the death of at least two European hostages and a leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali.
He was killed in operations in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in northern Mali in late February, the statement from Hollande’s office said.
The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back militants linked to Abou Zeid and other extremist groups who had imposed harsh Islamic rule and who are seen as an international terrorist threat.
Abou Zeid led one of the most violent brigades of al-Qaida’s North African franchise. He was believed to be holding four French nationals kidnapped two years ago at a uranium mine in Niger. The fate of those hostages, working for French company Areva, was unclear.
Abou Zeid held a Frenchman released in February 2010, and another who was executed that July. He’s also been linked to the execution of a British hostage in 2009.
A powerful and shadowy figure, mystery surrounds even his real name. Along with his nom de guerre, Abou Zeid had an alias, Mosab Abdelouadoud, and nicknames, the emir of the south and the little emir, due to his diminutive size. But the Algerian press has raised questions about his legal identity — Abid Hamadou or Mohamed Ghedir.
He was viewed as a disciplined radical with close ties to the overall AQIM boss, Abdelmalek Droukdel, who oversees operations from his post in northern Algeria.
Abou Zeid fought with a succession of Islamist insurgency movements trying to topple the Algerian state since 1992. He reportedly joined the brutal, and now defunct, Armed Islamic Group that massacred whole villages in northern Algeria, then joined the Salafist Group for Call and Combat that morphed into al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in 2006.
An Algerian court tried him in absentia in January 2012, convicting him of belonging to an international terrorist group and sentencing him to life in prison.