France claims death of top extremist leader in Mali

French defence minister says Ali Maychou was second most wanted militant in Sahel

French Defense Minister Florence Parly speaks after meeting with Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in Bamako, Mali November 5, 2019. REUTERS/Paul Lorgerie
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France on Tuesday announced the death of a top extremist leader in Mali as it sought to reassure the West African nation of European support in the fight against militants.

French troops killed Moroccan Ali Maychou, co-founder of a group named GSIM, in Mali last month.

Defence Minister Florence Parly made the announcement aboard a government plane as she returned from an official visit to the region.

Maychou was "the second most-wanted terrorist in the Sahel", after GSIM's number one, Iyad Ag Ghaly, Ms Parly told AFP.

A collection of extremist groups linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the GSIM was launched in 2017 and has claimed responsibility for the biggest attacks in the Sahel.

Ag Ghaly is a Tuareg Malian who has been involved in militancy for nearly three decades.

Mali's army has been struggling to contain the insurgency despite help from France, African neighbours and the UN.

Deadly assaults have underscored the fragility of a region where extremist violence has claimed hundreds of lives.

In the latest attack, claimed by ISIS-allied militants, gunmen on Friday shot dead 49 Malian troops at an army base near the border with Niger.

Over the weekend, two more Malian troops and a French soldier were killed.

FILE PHOTO: A French soldier from the 12th armoured regiment uses his binoculars from an armoured vehicle during the regional anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane in Inaloglog, Mali, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

France, whose 4,500 Barkhane troops have been in the Sahel since 2014, has been trying to convince European partners to boost military assistance.

Earlier on Tuesday, Ms Parly acknowledged the security situation was "clearly difficult" but said France was nearing a breakthrough in talks.

"By 2020, special forces from European countries will be in Mali alongside the French special forces to pass on exceptional know-how" to Mali's army, she said during a visit to the northern city of Gao.

Ms Parly said about a dozen countries had been approached to join the unit, which will be named "Takuba", or "sabre" in Tuareg, and had received encouraging replies.

Participation is conditional on votes in national parliaments but Ms Parly said she was optimistic.

Efforts to boost the European security presence in the region come as continuing attacks raise questions over the ability of the Malian army and its foreign backers to take control of the situation, as well as protests against international forces.

Maychou was killed during the night of October 8 with the help of Malian troops and US support, Ms Parly said.

He joined the regional branch of Al Qaeda in 2012 before co-founding GSIM with Iyad Ag Ghaly and masterminding its expansion in the Sahel.

"It's very important to profoundly disorganise these movements but that doesn't mean they will self-destruct," Ms Parly said.

Northern Mali fell into the hands of extremists in 2012 before the militants were forced out by a French-led military intervention.

But the insurgents have regrouped to carry out hit-and-run strikes in violence that has spread to central Mali.

A month ago, about 40 troops were killed near the Burkina Faso border.

Mali's President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, said Friday's attack showed the help of foreign forces was "necessary more than ever".

The 13,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Mali helped the army to build the Indelimane base last year, along with French soldiers.

The G5 Sahel, a five-nation taskforce set up in 2014 to tackle the extremist threat, is also active in the region. It comprises troops from Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Chad.

But the continuing instability has stirred protests.

In mid-October, hundreds of demonstrators set fire to tyres and ransacked UN supply containers outside a military camp in Sevare, near the central Malian city of Mopti.

There have also been protests against foreign troops in Niger since the start of the year.