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Mystery Surrounds Fate of al Qaida-Linked N. African Terrorist - 2004-03-16


Mystery surrounds the fate of a notorious al Qaida-linked North African terrorist who may have been caught up in fighting with government troops in Chad.

U.S. officials say it is still uncertain whether a leader of the feared Algerian terrorist organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, was killed last week in Chad.

Chadian authorities claim to have killed some 40 suspected members of the group in a two-day gunbattle, possibly including Saifi Ammari, a former Algerian soldier nicknamed "the Para," who U.S. officials have described as a leader of growing influence in the Salafist movement.

U.S. officials say Chad's government asked for a photograph of the accused terrorist, apparently to check against the faces of the victims of last week's clash. They say they have not yet heard whether he has been confirmed among the dead.

Mr. Ammari is on both the U.S. and United Nations lists of al-Qaida linked terrorists. He is specifically wanted internationally for his role in the kidnappings last year of European tourists traveling in the Sahara.

Chad's government says the dead from last week's battle included militants from Algeria, Niger and Mali. Three government soldiers were killed in the operation. U.S. officials say American military forces played no direct role in the actual fighting, although they provided support in the form of intelligence, communications and reconnaissance.

A senior Chadian official is quoted in a U.S. military report as saying the engagement led to the discovery and seizure of five trucks, each equipped with heavy machine guns along with a cache of rocket-propelled grenades, AK-47 automatic rifles, mortars and ammunition.

U.S. officials, who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity, indicate the alleged terrorist group led by Mr. Ammari had been tracked across the Sahara from its bases in the Algeria-Mali border area.

U.S. Special Operations forces have been training soldiers in Mali and Mauritania in counter-terrorist tactics in a State Department sponsored program called the Pan-Sahel Initiative. The training in those two countries ends this month. It will continue later this year in Chad and Niger.

In the meantime, the U.S. military has delivered more than 19 tons of aid to Chad, including food, blankets and medical supplies. Chad requested the assistance for troops wounded in the fighting as well as to support future anti-terrorist missions.

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