Al-Qaida source confirms N. Africa leader Abou Zeid slain
By Angus MacKinnon, AFPPARIS -- An al-Qaida source on Monday confirmed the death of one of the leaders of the organization's North African wing, in the most significant success yet for the French-led operation against Islamist fighters in Mali.
March 5, 2013, 12:35 am TWN
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) chief Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was killed as a result of 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 Islamist leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was alive and still fighting. That contradicted claims from Chad that its troops had killed the mastermind of the January assault on an Algerian gas plant in January that left 37 hostages dead.
The acknowledgement of Abou Zeid's death came as France's top military official claimed that the intervention launched in January was now breaking the back of the organization 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.
Abou Zeid was believed to have been holding four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2010, but the French army's chief of staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud said that could not be confirmed.
“We do not know where the hostages are,” Guillaud said. “We think the hostages are not there (where air strikes are taking place), otherwise we would not be carrying them out.”
The hostages' families on Monday urged President Francois Hollande to seek talks with AQIM aimed at securing their relatives' release.
“France must give AQIM clear signals of a willingness to negotiate, in liaison with (the hostages' employers) Areva and Vinci,” said a statement issued on their behalf.
The families have repeatedly expressed concern about the possible consequences of France's military intervention in its former colony but Monday's statement was the first time they have publicly challenged the government's approach.