Chad says troops in Mali killed terrorist behind Algeria plant attack
Published Saturday, March 2, 2013 3:59PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, March 2, 2013 11:10PM EST
The terrorist behind the assault on a gas plant in Algeria that left dozens of people dead was killed in an attack in the mountains of northern Mali, Chad’s army claimed Saturday.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue read a statement on state television saying Moktar Belmoktar, the former head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in Mali, was killed when Chadian soldiers destroyed a jihadist base in the Adrar and Ifoghas mountains in the north of the country.
The French military, which is leading an international campaign against rebels with ties to al Qaeda in northern Mali, said it could not confirm Belmoktar’s death, or that of Abou Zeid, another top-ranking al Qaeda commander. Chad’s president said Friday that his country’s troops had killed Zeid.
Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was kidnapped by AQIM in 2008 in Niger and held for 130 days. Fowler, now retired, reacted cautiously to the news of the deaths in a statement sent to CTV News. Belmoktar was said to have played a role in Fowler’s kidnapping.
Fowler said that while he considers the deaths of the two men to be good news, “good for Mali, and good for the prospects for peace and stability throughout the Sahel region, I must temper my enthusiasm by the fact that this is by no means the first time Belmokhtar’s death has been reported, but also -- and far more significantly -- until I know that the hostages, who have undergone such torment at the hands of these men, are safe and sound and reunited with their long-suffering families.”
Meanwhile, France’s foreign ministry refused to confirm or deny the report.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, an elected official told The Associated Press that he did not believe Belmoktar is dead, and that the report was fabricated by Chad.
"These last few weeks, the Chadians have lost a significant number of soldiers in combat. (Claiming that they killed Belmoktar) is a way to give some importance to their intervention in Mali," said the official, who is well-acquainted with both French and Malian commanders in the field.
Security expert Alan Bell told CTV News Channel that proving Belmoktar’s death wouldnot necessarily be difficult, depending on how he was killed and the condition of the body.
Belmoktar, who sometimes wore an eye patch, lost an eye when he fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s.
If the reports are true, the death of Belmoktar will be a major blow to al Qaeda in the Sahara region, Bell said.
As the charismatic leader of AQIM, Belmoktar was involved in multiple kidnappings in Mali, Niger and Chad, Bell said.
“He was very successful at what he did,” Bell said. “There’s intelligence agencies who will say that he could probably be the new al Qaeda within the North African area.”
Both Belmoktar, an Algerian, and Zeid had been members of the Armed Islamic Group, which were responsible for suicide bombings on Algerian governments targets. They moved on to Mali in 2003, building wealthby operating a kidnapping-for-ransom business. The terror unit joined al Qaeda in 2006, and was renamed al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Belmoktar broke off from the group at the end of 2012 because he thought they weren’t being militant enough in their attacks, Bell said.
He created his own extremist group, which is said to be responsible for the attack on a natural gas plant in southeastern Algeria in January.
Belmoktar claimed responsibility for the attack and the subsequent killing of 37 hostages, saying the assault was in response to the French military presence in Mali.
Bell said Belmoktar’s death, if true, will be only serve as a temporary “knock down” for al Qaeda in that region before another leader comes along.
“We may get a lull in terrorist attacks and kidnappings in that region of Africa, but it’s not going to end it.”
The situation in Mali is turning out to be “more complicated than the French thought” in terms of the number of security problems, North Africa terrorism expert Alessandro Bruno told News Channel.
“We’ve got Niger next door, which is one of the world’s largest uranium producing regions and no one wants any one of these people to get close it,” said Bruno, who is a journalist with proedgewire.com.
“Then you’ve got potential problems in Algeria of course, and Libya, where this whole story you can say, originated because the region was destabilized after the Libyan civil war, thanks to a lot of weapons flooding these borders.”
Bruno said the terrorists are also involved in the drug trade coming from west Africa.
“So there is a real combination of factors that’s going to be very difficult to break,” he said.
With files from The Associated Press