Al-Qaida Chief Believed Killed

Abou Zeid’s Death Called Critical Blow

N’djamena, Chad — Chadian President Idriss Deby announced yesterday that Chadian troops fighting to dislodge an al-Qaida affiliate in northern Mali killed one of the group’s leading commanders, Abou Zeid.

The death of the Algerian warlord, a feared radical leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb behind the kidnapping of several Westerners, could not immediately be verified. His death would be a big blow to his group and its growing influence in North and West Africa.

Officials in Mali and in France, which is leading an international military intervention in Mali against Islamic extremists linked to AQIM, could not confirm the death.

The Chadian president’s spokesman said that Deby announced the death of Abou Zeid during a ceremony yesterday for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting in Mali.

The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back al-Qaida-linked militants who had imposed harsh Islamic rule in the vast country and who were seen as an international terrorist threat. The extremists took control over northern Mali in a power vacuum after a coup last year, and had started moving toward the capital.

France is trying to rally other African troops to help in the military campaign, since Mali’s military is weak and poor. Chadian troops have offered the most robust reinforcement.

For the past 10 days, French military, along with Chadian forces, have been locked in a weeklong battle against extremists in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains of northern Mali that has left scores dead.

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who led one of the most violent brigades of al-Qaida’s North African franchise and helped lead the extremist takeover of the north, was thought to be 47 years old. He was viewed as a disciplined radical with close ties to the overall AQIM boss, Abdelmalek Droukdel who overseas operations from his post in northern Algeria. But he was also an arch rival of Moktar bel Moktar, known as “the one-eyed sheik” after lost an eye in combat in Afghanistan.