UPDATE 1-French forces in Mali kill Islamist on U.S. wanted list
PARIS // French forces in northern Mali have killed a senior commander of the Al Mourabitoun Islamist group who was wanted by the United States.
The US has offered a US$5 million (Dh18.4m) reward for information leading to the capture of Ahmed Al Tilemsi, who took part in the 2011 kidnappings of two French nationals in Niger and three aid workers in Algeria. The French nationals were later found dead after a failed rescue attempt by the French military.
Al Tilemsi had a long history with extremist groups operating in the Sahel region, having been a member of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) before becoming one of the founding members of a splinter group named Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).
MUJWA merged with fighters loyal to veteran Islamist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar - who masterminded the deadly 2013 raid against Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant - to form Al Mourabitoun in August last year.
“Last night, we launched an operation in the Gao region in coordination with Malian forces,” French army spokesman Colonel Gilles Jarron said on Thursday.
“We’ve really hit Al Murabitoun hard.”
Col Jarron said that Al Tilemsi had been killed and a dozen other Islamists “neutralised”, but did not specify if that meant killed or arrested.
MUJWA, Belmokhtar’s men and members of AQIM formed a loose alliance of fighters that seized northern Mali’s desert regions in 2012.
The fighters imposed a brutal interpretation of sharia, characterised by amputations, beatings and executions, before being scattered by a French-led military intervention in January 2013.
Al Mourabitoun, which loosely translates as “the guardians,” was formed seven months later and claimed to seek revenge on France.
France has kept about 3,200 troops in the Sahara-Sahel region as part of a counter-insurgency force.
An additional 200-400 special forces have a mandate to hunt down leaders of the Islamist groups, which have mounted a resurgence in recent months with a series of attacks killing dozens of UN peacekeepers in Mali.
The last of the French hostages held by the Al Qaeda-linked militants was freed earlier this week and arrived back in France on Wednesday. Sources said Mali released at least two Islamists in return, however, angering local rights groups.
Islamist militancy has swept across North Africa in recent years, with French nationals being targeted as a response to Paris’ military involvement in the region.
Also on Thursday, Algeria announced that soldiers had killed a second member of Jund Al Khilifa, an Islamist group implicated in the beheading of French mountain guide Herve Gourdel earlier this year.
Authorities have identified the body of one of the presumed murderers, who was “killed recently by the army,” justice minister Tayeb Louh said, without identifying the man in question.
Mr Louh announced the death of another man last month, also implicated in the Frenchman’s abduction and murder.
Gourdel was kidnapped in September and later beheaded by Jund Al Khilifa, or Soldiers of the Caliphate, which has pledged allegiance to ISIL.
Jund Al Khilifa said it killed the 55-year-old in retaliation for French participation in a US-led air campaign targeting ISIL militants in Iraq.
The Algerian authorities are hunting 15 people thought to be involved in the abduction, focusing their hunt in the rugged Kabylie region east of the capital.
The fugitives, all Algerian, include Jund Al Khilifa chief Abdelmalek Gouri, 37, who is also known as Khaled Abu Souleiman.
The group was formed at the end of August after breaking away from AQIM and pledging allegiance to ISIL.
Published: December 11, 2014 04:00 AM