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French Commander Cautious About Al-Qaida Leaders' Deaths

There's uncertainty over the supposed death of two top al-Qaida-affiliated leaders reportedly killed in West Africa.

The government of Chad over the weekend said Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the man thought to have masterminded the kidnapping of dozens of foreigners in Algeria in January — many of whom were killed in a subsequent government raid — had been killed in fighting in Mali.

Edouard Guillaud, head of France's joint chiefs of staff, told Europe 1 radio that it's probable Abou Zeid had been killed in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains but that he's less certain of the death of Belmokhtar.

"It is probable, but only probable," Guillaud told Europe 1. "We don't have any certainty for the moment. It would be good news."

Guillaud said he's "extremely cautious" about reports of Belmokhtar's death. Some militant websites have said the al-Qaida commander, nicknamed "the uncatchable," is still alive.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, reporting from Dakar, says if Abu Zeid and Belmokhtar are confirmed killed it "would eliminate [AQIM's] leadership in Mali, although Belmokhtar split from al-Qaida to set up his own Signed in Blood brigade last year."

According to Reuters news agency, the Mauritanian news website Sahara Media, which has close contacts with Abou Zeid's al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), cited an Islamist source as confirming that the smuggler-turned-jihadist had been killed in a French airstrike. However, the website said Belmokhtar was nowhere near the fighting.

The general commanding Chadian forces in northern Mali, Oumar Bikomo, was more cautious than his government, saying only that it's "possible" Belmokhtar had been killed.

The Irish Times and other sources quote Rudy Attalah, a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official focused on Africa and now head of risk analysis firm White Mountain Research, as being skeptical about Chad's claim.

He said Belmokhtar had in the past carefully avoided operating in the same area as Abou Zeid and was known as an elusive operator who shifted through the desert in small, mobile groups of fighters.

"I don't think they killed him at all," he said, adding that Chad might be seeking to divert domestic attention from its 26 soldiers killed in the operation.

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