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France confirms militant was killed

by STEVEN ERLANGER New York Times News Service on March 24, 2013 2:00 AM

PARIS — France on Saturday officially confirmed the death of the regional al-Qaida leader Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, weeks after he was reported to have been killed in fighting in northern Mali at the end of February.

President Francois Hollande of France issued a statement saying that the death of Abu Zeid was “definitively confirmed” and that his death “marks an important step in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel.”

Abu Zeid was considered the leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, a regional affiliate and offshoot of al-Qaida, and is thought to be responsible for the kidnapping of numerous Western hostages and the deaths of at least two of them.

He was also a crucial figure in the Islamist takeover of northern Mali and became a target of the French military intervention in that country in mid-January, when Islamist forces moved south toward the capital, Bamako.

This month, the president of Chad, whose troops have been fighting in close partnership with the French in the mountainous vastness of northern Mali, announced the death of Abu Zeid, but the French held off, waiting for DNA analysis to be done in Algeria.

France has not confirmed the reported death of another Islamist leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was said to have masterminded the militant takeover of an Algerian natural-gas plant in January that left at least 37 foreign hostages dead. The Chadians have said that he was also killed in fighting at the beginning of March, but Islamists who sometimes speak to Mauritanian news agencies have said that Abu Zeid had died but that Belmokhtar remained alive.

Abu Zeid’s death would be a significant blow to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, as he was considered the toughest, most resilient of the local al-Qaida commanders, and the most ruthless. He is considered responsible for the executions of at least two Western hostages in 2010 and 2009 — a Frenchman and a Briton — and his unit is believed to be holding perhaps half a dozen other Western hostages.

In addition, his extensive network of contacts throughout the region allowed him to recruit in many countries, analysts said.

Born Mohamed Ghdiri in Algeria, Abu Zeid is believed to have been 46.

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