Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed desert bandit turned extremist commander who was behind January’s bloody hostage seizure at an Algerian natural-gas facility, was killed by Chadian military forces Saturday, according to a statement on Chadian state TV by Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue, the army chief of staff.
The French military was unable to confirm the killing, and local officials in Mali cast doubt on the claim, saying it was made for domestic political purposes at the end of a week that has seen Chadian forces take heavy casualties in the ongoing U.N.-authorized, French-led, African multinational military campaign against al Qaeda and its allies in Mali.
Belmokhtar’s death, if confirmed, will be the second of two hammer blows to extremists in the region. On Friday, Algerian media reported that French forces had killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, like Belmoukhtar a commander of al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Abou Zeid became known as the “butcher of Timbuktu” after he instituted a vicious form of Islamic Sharia law in Timbuktu, Mali, after AQIM and other extremists threw government forces out of the country’s vast desert north last year.
An Algerian born near the border with Libya, the 46-year-old Abou Zeid was a former smuggler who embraced radical Islam in the 1990s and became one of AQIM’s key leaders.
He is believed behind a series of kidnappings, including of British national Edwin Dyer, who was abducted in Niger and executed in 2009, and of 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, killed in 2010.
Abou Zeid’s brigade, known as “El Fatihine,” also is thought to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2010.
Abou Zeid, whose real name was Mohamed Ghdiri, was thought to have about 200 seasoned fighters under his command.
Like Belmokhtar, another Algerian, Abou Zeid was a member of the Armed Islamic Group, and both men were involved in the Islamic insurgency in Algeria, put down by the authorities there with maximal brutality.
Belmokhtar broke off from the group at the end of 2012 and created his own extremist group, Those Who Sign in Blood, which took responsibility for the attack on the natural-gas plant in southeastern Algeria in January.