France last night said a third French soldier had been killed in fierce fighting with Islamist rebels in northern Mali, but could not confirm Chad’s report that its troops had killed the al-Qaeda commander behind January’s mass hostage-taking in Algeria.
A whirlwind seven-week campaign has driven al-Qaeda-linked fighters who took over northern Mali last April into mountain and desert redoubts, where they are being hunted by hundreds of French, Chadian and Malian troops.
France’s defence ministry said Corporal Cedric Charenton, 26, was shot dead on Saturday during an assault on Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains near Algeria, the third French soldier killed in the campaign.
French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard said 15 Islamists were killed in some of the fiercest fighting during the campaign so far, but that he could not confirm Chad’s claim that its troops had killed al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar at a nearby camp in the remote Ametetai valley.
“We are facing a very fanatical adversary,” Col Burkhard said. “They are fighting without giving ground.”
Reports of Belmokhtar’s death came a day after Chadian president Idriss Deby said Chadian forces had also killed Adelhamid Abou Zeid, al-Qaeda’s other senior field commander in the Sahara. The killings, if confirmed, would eliminate al- Qaeda’s leadership in Mali and raise questions over the fate of seven French hostages thought to be held in northern Mali.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has pledged to avenge the French assault in Mali, which Paris said it launched due to fears its former colony could become a launch pad for wider al-Qaeda attacks.