France: Key al-Qaida Chief in Mali Likely Killed

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.