France says its military forces have killed the head of al-Qaeda in north Africa, Abdelmalek Droudkel.
Defence Minister Florence Parly said the French armed forces had “neutralised” Droudkel and “several of his close collaborators” during an operation in northern Mali on June 3, assisted by partners.
According to the United Nations, Droudkel assumed leadership of the Islamic Maghreb, then named Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, in 2004.
The group, whose aim is to destabilise North African countries such as Tunisia, Mali, Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso through attacks and kidnappings, merged with al-Qaeda in 2006.
“I congratulate and thank all those who have enabled and carried out these daring operations, which have dealt a serious blow to these terrorist groups,” Parly said in a tweet.
Ms Parly said French forces, which number about 5,200 in the region, had also on May 19 captured Mohamed el Mrabat, a fighter she identified as a veteran militant and member of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
She said the operations dealt a “severe blow” to terrorist groups in the region that had been operating for years despite the presence of thousands of French, UN and other African troops.
A former colonial power, France has a significant presence in West Africa. In February the “Barkhane” anti-terrorist mission there had been increased to about 5,100 soldiers.
The troops’ focus is the troubled tri-border region where Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger meet. It serves as a refuge for Islamist extremists who regularly attack the civilian population.