Al-Qaeda’s top commander in Mali has been killed, Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno said, signaling a significant blow to the rebels in the seven-week French-led intervention against Islamist insurgents.
Several newspapers in Abou Zeid’s native Algeria had reported his death and Washington had described the reports as “very credible.”
Deby on Friday said Abou Zeid, the Mali-based operative of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed in fighting between Chadian troops and Islamist fighters on Feb. 22.
“On Feb. 22, we lost several soldiers in the Ifogha mountains after destroying the jihadists’ base. This was the first time there was a direct confrontation with the jihadists,” he said.
“Our soldiers killed two jihadist chiefs, including Abou Zeid,” said Deby, whose elite forces are among the best desert troops on the continent and have played a key role in the offensive to liberate northern Mali.
Algeria’s independent Ennahar TV reported earlier this week that Abou Zeid was killed in northern Mali, along with 40 other Islamist militants.
In Washington, a US official speaking on condition of anonymity said reports of his death seemed “very credible” and that if Abou Zeid was indeed slain, “it would be a significant blow to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
French officials have so far reacted with caution, with French President Francois Hollande saying on Friday: “Reports are circulating; it is not up to me to confirm them.”
The killing of Abou Zeid, a ruthless militant linked to kidnappings and executions of Westerners, would be a major success for French forces, who intervened in Mali in mid-January to help oust Islamist rebels then in control of the north.
The presidential election meant to haul Mali out of crisis will take place in July, the prime minister’s chief of staff said on Friday, without giving a precise date.
“Measures have been taken to respect the deadline,” said Boubacar Sow, chief of staff for Malian Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, a month after interim Malian president Dioncounda Traore promised a vote by July 31.
“The security situation on the ground, a return to government in the north and of refugees and displaced residents are the prerequisites for which we are trying to find quick solutions,” Sow said.
The elections are part of a roadmap adopted unanimously by parliament in January to restore constitutional rule in what was once considered one of west Africa’s most stable democracies.
Critics have said July is too soon to organize the presidential and parliamentary polls, given the problems Mali faces.
The French-led offensive continues to battle ongoing insurgent attacks in a nation weakened by a deeply divided military and where hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes.
Algeria’s El Khabar newspaper reported on Friday that authorities there had carried out DNA tests to try to confirm Abou Zeid’s death.
“The security services are comparing DNA taken from two close relatives of Abou Zeid with samples taken from the remains of a body supplied by French forces,” it said.
French and west African troops have been hunting down rebels they dislodged from northern Mali’s main cities following a lightning advance against the Islamists.
Abou Zeid, 46, whose real name is Mohammed Ghedir, was often seen in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao after the Islamists took control of northern Mali last year and sparked fears the region could become a haven for extremists.