The Algerian armed forces said yesterday they had killed the leader of a major Islamic rebel group with ties to al-Qaeda.
"Units of the People's National Army, engaged in a vast anti-terrorist operation... have killed a number of criminals, including Nabil Sahraoui, alias Mustapha Abou Ibrahim, chief of the terrorist group known as the GSPC, as well as his [three] main aides," the army said in a statement obtained by Reuters.
It said the militants died in the province of Bejaia, some 200km east of the capital Algiers. It did not say when they were killed, but said the military operation was still going on.
The death of Sahraoui, who took over the leadership a year ago, was expected to significantly weaken the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) the only remaining major rebel organization still fighting Algeria's secular authorities.
The group, believed to number around 500 armed members, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in the Sahara desert last year. It is on the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Algeria's President Abelaziz Bouteflika has made it a priority to crush Islamic militants bent on turning the Muslim country into a Taliban-style state.
"The leadership of the GSPC has been decapitated and it will be difficult to rebuild a strong leadership as most of the top officials are dead, under arrest or have disappeared," said Mounir Boudjema, an Algerian security expert and editor.
"It is now a much-weakened group but it's not the end of terrorism as links to al Qaeda remain and some will keep fighting."
Islamic extremist groups took up arms to overthrow the government after army-backed authorities cancelled parliamentary elections a radical Islamic party was poised to win in 1992.
More than 150,000 people, mostly civilians, have since been killed, according to human rights groups. Violence has sharply declined over the past two years but the recent alignment of the GSPC to al Qaeda has worried analysts and diplomats.
Earlier this month the GSPC declared war on foreign individuals and companies in Algeria. The move came amid a series of such attacks on foreigners in Saudi Arabia -- where, on Friday, the leader of al Qaeda in the kingdom was shot dead by security forces.
The GSPC was created in 1998 by former members of the Armed Islamic Group who did not agree with attacls on civilians.
Analysts said Sahraoui's death would clear the way for those who wanted to surrender in exchange for some form of amnesty, which he had opposed.