Algerian special forces killed the leader of the militant group responsible for kidnapping and beheading French tourist Herve Gourdel in September, Algeria's Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday.
Abdelmalek Gouri, also known as Khalid Abu Suleiman, was killed in an ambush near Boumerdes, 50 km (30 miles) east of Algiers, it said in a statement.
Gouri was a veteran of Algeria's 1990s Islamist conflict and leader of the Caliphate Soldiers group, which declared its allegiance to jihadist Islamic State fighters in September.
Caliphate Soldiers kidnapped Gourdel when he was planning a hiking trip in the mountainous region east of the capital. Militants later showed a video of his beheading, saying they killed him to punish France for its military actions in Iraq.
A former regional head of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Gouri had aligned his fighters with Islamic State, whose battlefield successes and declaration of a “Caliphate” in Iraq and Syria have drawn in other North African groups, challenging al-Qaida.
Two other militants were killed in a separate operation on Tuesday in nearby Tizi Ouzou, the ministry's statement said, in the same mountains that have long been home to bands of militants. Known locally as the “triangle of death,” the region used to be an AQIM stronghold.
Important US ally
Algerian forces have killed 110 militants in 2014, according to a military source, and Algeria remains an important U.S. ally in its fight against armed groups in the region.
Gouri fought with Islamist militants in the 1991-2002 conflict that killed about 200,000 people. He was a member of the Armed Islamic Group, known by its French initials GIA - the most extreme of Algeria's Islamist guerrillas in the civil war.
His small group had released only a few statements and videos after killing Gourdel to reassert their loyalty to Islamic State. But they had carried out no major operations from their mountain base since then, analysts said.
“This is a blow to Islamic State in Algeria, the small group has only been in existence for a couple of months,” said Algerian security analyst Anis Rahmani. “Killing its chief will affect the morale of the militants.”