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French forces have killed the leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel, in northern Mali, French officials said Friday.

Droukdel was killed on Thursday near the Algerian border, where the group has bases it uses to carry out attacks and abductions of Westerners in the sub-Saharan Sahel zone, French Defense Minister Florence Parly said.

“Many close associates” of Droukdel — who also held authority over several affiliate jihadi groups in the region — were also “neutralized,” she added.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) stems from a group started in the late 1990s by radical Algerian Islamists.

France also claimed on Friday to have captured a leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) group, which carries out frequent attacks over Niger’s western borders.

“On May 19, French forces captured Mohamed el Mrabat, veteran jihadist in the Sahel region and an important cadre in EIGS,” Parly said on Twitter.

Operations against EIGS “the other great terrorist threat in the region” are continuing, said Parly.

France has over 5,000 troops deployed in its anti-jihadi Barkhane force in the Sahel region.

Mali is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in 2012 and which has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives since.

Despite the presence of thousands of French and U.N. troops, the conflict has engulfed the center of the country and spread to neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

A source said that some 500 jihadist fighters had been killed or captured by French troops in the region in recent months, including several important figures including commanders and recruiters.

Droukdel’s death is a symbolic coup for the French, a military source said.

He had remained a threat in the region, capable of financing jihadist movements ,even though his leadership had been contested, the source added.

His death, and that of other al-Qaida figures, could leave the group disorganized in the Sahel.

Born in 1971 in a poor neighborhood of Algiers, Droukdel took part in the founding in Algeria of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).

Abdelaziz Bouteflika, elected Algerian president in 1999, managed to convince most of the armed groups in the country to lay down their weapons.

The GSPC, however, refused to do so and Droukdel decided to approach al-Qaida.

His affiliation with al-Qaida’s founder Osama bin Laden was confirmed in 2006.

The following year GSPC was renamed as AQIM, ascribing fully to al-Qaida’s ideology.

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