An al-Qaeda source has confirmed the death of one of the leaders of the organization’s north African wing, in the most significant success yet for the French-led operation against Islamist fighters in Mali.
However, there were no public celebrations in Paris on Monday as relatives of hostages held in the region voiced fears the development leaves their loved ones at greater risk and called for a pause in the bombing to allow for negotiations aimed at securing their release.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior figure in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed last week in a French bombing raid in the Adrar des Ifoghas, an AQIM militant told private Mauritanian news agency Sahara Medias.
However, the source insisted that another Islamist leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was alive and still fighting, contradicting claims over the weekend from Chad that its troops had killed Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January assault on an Algerian gas plant that left 37 foreign hostages dead.
A French broadcaster on Monday published a photograph taken on cellphone which it said showed the bloodied body of Belmokhtar.
Radio France Internationale said it was taken by a Chadian soldier.
With foreign governments reacting cautiously to claims about the deaths of the top militants, Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno on Monday said his country had only refrained from showing the bodies out of respect for Muslim customs.
The claims of Abou Zeid’s death came as France’s top military official claimed that the intervention launched in January was breaking the back of AQIM and its allies.
It also coincided with a call by relatives of four of the French hostages held in the region for a pause in the bombing to allow for negotians for their release.
Fears that the hostages could be subjected to reprisal executions have intensified as the reports of the militants’ killings emerged.
Abou Zeid was believed to have been holding four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2010, but French Army chief of staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud said that could not be confirmed.