N'DJAMENA, Chad - President Idriss Deby announced Friday 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 White House had no immediate reaction. The U.S. has offered drones and intelligence help to the French-led operation.
A Chadian presidential spokesman said Deby announced the death of Abou Zeid during a ceremony Friday for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting in Mali.
Deby said, "It was our soldiers who killed two big Islamist chiefs in northern Mali," including Abou Zeid, the spokesman said.
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 northern Mali, was thought to be 47 years old.
He was a pillar of the southern realm of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, responsible for the deaths of at least two European hostages. He was believed to be holding four French nationals kidnapped two years ago at a uranium mine in Niger. The fate of those hostages, working for French company Areva, was unclear Friday.
Abou Zeid held a Frenchman released in February 2010, and another who was executed that July. He's also been linked to the execution of a British hostage in 2009.
The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back militants linked to Abou Zeid and other extremist groups who had imposed harsh Islamic rule in the vast country and who were seen as an international terrorist threat. The extremists took control of 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.