NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AFP) - Al-Qaeda's north African branch confirmed that one of its top leaders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, had been killed in fighting in Mali, three months after France announced his death, according to a statement published on Sunday.
The Algerian-born Abou Zeid, considered one of the most radical leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed "on the battlefield defending Umma (the Muslim community) and syariah law", according to a statement carried by the private Mauritanian news agency ANI.
It gave no date for his death.
Paris had announced in March that Abou Zeid was killed in fighting with its forces after France led an offensive to rout Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist groups from northern Mali.
Both France and Chad, whose troops were also involved in the offensive, said the 46-year-old militant was killed at the end of February.
“It is the first time that an AQIM statement has officially referred to the death of Abou Zeid,” said ANI director Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Abou Al-Maali, a specialist on the Islamist group.
In March, however, Algerian television said that Al-Qaeda had named a replacement for Abou Zeid, Algerian national Djamel Okacha.
Abou Zeid had a reputation as a severe, aloof character with an unflinching capacity for violence when required. Born in Debdeb in Algeria, close to the border with Libya, Abou Zeid was a young activist in the FIS Islamist movement that won the country’s first democratic elections in 1991 but was denied power. He then disappeared underground for most of the 1990s.
He re-emerged spectacularly in 2003 as second in command of the GSPC group, which kidnapped dozens of foreigners in southern Algeria, and that would later, along with several other organisations, evolve into AQIM.
Latterly, Abou Zeid – whose real name was Mohamed Ghdir, according to Algerian court documents – was considered a deputy to AQIM’s “Saharan emir” Yahia Djouadi and commanded a katiba, or battalion, of fighters from Mauritania, Algeria and Mali known as Tareq ibn Ziyad, named after an eighth-century Muslim military commander.
Mali descended into chaos in the wake of a March 2012 coup as Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels capitalised on the power vacuum to seize a Texas-sized triangle of desert territory in the north.
France launched its offensive in its former colony on Jan 11 to stop the Islamists from advancing on the capital Bamako.