PARIS - The death of a top al-Qaida-linked warlord in combat with French-led troops represents a victory in the battle against jihadists who had a stranglehold on northern Mali. But it is far from the defining blow against a wily enemy that can go underground and regroup to renew itself.

A top commander of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Abou Zeid had been in the cross hairs of the French military and their African partners since they moved in to Mali on Jan. 11 to rout radicals seen as a threat to northwest Africa and to Europe. An announcement Saturday by the French president's office that Abou Zeid's death in late February has been "definitively confirmed" ends weeks of speculation about his fate.

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an Algerian thought to be 47, was a pillar of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb's southern realm, responsible for the death of at least two European hostages and a leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali, which followed a coup d'etat a year ago.

He joined a series of radical insurgency movements in Algeria starting in the early 1990s and became known for his brutality and involvement in hostage-taking.

Abou Zeid was killed in operations in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in Mali's far north, the French statement said. The area where mountains meet the desert was Abou Zeid's stronghold - and thought to be where he was keeping four French hostages captured two years ago at a uranium mine in Niger. Their fate is unclear.

The French military says the French-led forces have killed hundreds of extremist fighters in the two-month campaign in Mali, and French officials say they have cornered the al-Qaida-linked groups in a patch of northern mountains.

However, even a clear military success by the French and their partners in Mali would not guarantee that the Maghreb militant faction will die.