Qaeda source confirms leader slain, fuelling hostage fears
PARIS (AFP) – An al-Qaeda source has confirmed the death of one of the leaders of the organisation’s North African wing, in the most significant success yet for the French-led operation against extremist fighters in Mali.
But there were no public celebrations in Paris on Monday as relatives of hostages held in the region voiced fears the development leaves their loved ones at greater risk and called for a pause in the bombing to allow for negotiations aimed at securing their release.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior figure in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed last week in a French bombing raid in the Ifoghas mountains, an AQIM militant told the private Mauritanian news agency Sahara Medias.
The source insisted however that another extremist leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was alive and still fighting.
That contradicted claims over the weekend from Chad that its troops had killed Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January assault on an Algerian gas plant in January that left 37 foreign hostages dead. Chad has also said its troops were responsible for killing Abou Zeid.
A French broadcaster on Monday published a cell phone picture which it said showed the bloodied body of Belmokhtar.
Radio France Internationale said the picture, re-produced on its website, was taken by a Chadian soldier in northern Mali.
With foreign governments reacting cautiously to Chad’s claims about the deaths of the top militants, Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno on Monday said his country had only refrained from showing the bodies out of respect for Muslim customs.
The al-Qaeda source’s acknowledgement of Abou Zeid’s death came as France’s top military official claimed that the intervention launched in January was breaking the back of AQIM and its allies in Mali.
It also coincided with a call by relatives of four of the French hostages held in the region for a pause in the bombing to allow for negotiations with the rebels on the possible release of their loved ones.
Fears the hostages may have been used as human shields or could be subject to reprisal executions have intensified in recent days as the reports on Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar emerged from Chad.