BAMAKO/N'DJAMENA – Al-Qaida’s top commander in Mali has been killed, Chadian President Idriss Deby 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-Qaida 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 last week that Abou Zeid was killed in northern Mali along with 40 other Islamist militants.
In Washington, a U.S. 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-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.”
French officials have so far reacted with caution, with President Francois Hollande saying 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.
Abou Zeid was an archrival of Moktar Belmoktar, known as “the one-eyed sheik” after he lost an eye in combat in Afghanistan. Belmoktar’s profile soared after a mid-January attack on a huge Algerian gas plant and a mass hostage-taking that left 37 hostages — including 10 Japanese — and 29 attackers dead.
The two of them spent years building up the AQIM presence in Mali, but it was Abou Zeid who was considered the crueler of the two. After the militants took over Mali’s north, Abou Zeid took control of the fabled city of Timbuktu, meting out justice according to his extremist view of Islamic law.
Also Friday, chief of staff of Mali’s prime minister said the presidential election meant to haul the country out of crisis will take place in July. He did not give a precise date.
“Measures have been taken to respect the deadline,” Boubacar Sow, chief of staff for Prime Minister Diango Cissoko, said, a month after interim 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 road map 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.