PARIS – Moktar Belmoktar, a one-eyed Islamist militant leader who Chad claimed was killed in Mali last month, died by setting off explosives “in despair” over the death of one of his comrades, Chad’s president, Idriss Deby, said in an interview.
“We have proof of his death. We couldn’t film it because he blew himself up after the death of (Abdelhamid) Abou Zeid,” the president told French media outlets TV5 Monde, Radio France Internationale and Le Monde in a joint interview broadcast Sunday. “He wasn’t the only one. Three or four other jihadists (also) blew themselves up in despair.”
Belmoktar, an Algerian al-Qaida veteran, was the mastermind of the brazen January assault on a gas plant in southeast Algeria that left 37 foreign hostages dead. In early March, Chad announced that the militant had been killed during fierce fighting in the Ifoghas Mountains, on Mali’s northeastern border with Algeria.
But France, which has led the offensive against Islamists in Mali since Jan. 11, has so far only been willing to confirm the death of Abou Zeid, a key commander of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), saying it will carry out DNA tests on killed rebels.
In the joint interview, Chad’s president added that he was “perfectly” sure that Belmoktar was dead. “We identified him,” Deby said.
He also stated his belief that seven French hostages taken captive by militants in the region are no longer in Mali, saying, “I personally think that there are French (hostages) alive in the hands of jihadists, but I’m not that sure that that’s in Mali.” In total, 15 French nationals have been taken hostage in Africa, and on April 9 AQIM said one of them had died.
Deby also said Chad’s troops are now being withdrawn from Mali, with some of the 2,000-strong contingent having left already Saturday.
“The face-to-face war with jihadists is finished. The Chadian Army has no real skills to cope with a nebula. Chadian soldiers will return to Chad. They have completed their mission,” he said, but without giving specifics.
But Deby said that “if the United Nations makes a request, Chad will provide Chadian soldiers to the U.N.”
Meanwhile, France pulled out 100 soldiers ahead of schedule Monday as part of a phased withdrawal of the majority of its 4,000 troops.