DAKAR — French and Chadian forces battling Islamist militants in Mali's remote northeastern mountains are believed to have killed a top al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb commander known as Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, though the fate of at least four French hostages that Abou Zeid was thought to be holding nearby remains unknown.
Chad's president says Abou Zeid and another al-Qaida commander were among those killed in ongoing military operations in the area. French authorities are not confirming the reports.
The Algerian-born jihadist, if his death is confirmed, could be a significant blow in the ongoing war against the al-Qaida-linked rebels who seized control of northern Mali last April.
Zeid has been described as inflexible, cruel, violent, audacious, intelligent, radical and without pity. He was born in Algeria and commands a southern battalion of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM. His command is known to be one of AQIM's most radical factions.
A smuggler by trade, Abou Zeid fought in a succession of armed Algerian Islamist movements in the 1990s. He headed south to Mali about a decade ago as part of the Algerian-led Salafist movement that would ultimately rebrand itself as AQIM in 2006.
Mauritanian journalist and AQIM expert Isselmou Ould Moustapha said in killing Abou Zeid, the French and allied forces in Mali would be knocking out a formidable enemy.
He says Abou Zeid is one of the "most daring and determined" commanders that coalition forces currently face in Mali, even though Abou Zeid does not currently hold the post of "emir of the Sahara," or the chief of AQIM southern operations.
Moustapha says over the past decade, Abou Zeid has taken on the Mauritanian, Nigerien and Malian armies and made a name for himself engineering kidnappings in 2008, 2009 and 2010. He characterizes Abou Zeid as a powerful field commander who could mobilize fighters as determined as him.
He rose to international infamy for his involvement in kidnapping dozens of European hostages in the Sahel, beginning in 2003.
The operations took in millions of dollars in ransoms, money that analysts say was key to funding AQIM, while all the while being known as a tough negotiator.
Abou Zeid is believed to be behind the executions of two hostages: British tourist Edwin Dyer in 2009 and French aid worker Michel Germaneau in 2010.