French forces kill top Al-Qaeda commander in Sahel

French army snipers deploy on the top of a hill during an operation on Mar 16, 2013, in northern Mali. (AFP pic)

PARIS: French forces have killed a top jihadist leader, Yahya Abou El Hamame, in an operation in Mali, Defence Minister Florence Parly said Friday.

The Algerian, a commander in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was reputedly responsible for kidnapping a number of Westerners in North and West Africa.

A ministry statement issued in Paris said he was “the mastermind and financier of several attacks”.

El Hamame was killed Thursday when French land and air forces ambushed a column of vehicles he was travelling with north of Timbuktu, Parly said.

He reportedly served as AQIM’s “governor” in Timbuktu when the city was held by Islamist rebels from April 2012 to January 2013.

A number of other “terrorists” were “neutralised”, Parly added.

El Hamame was believed to be second in command of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), also known as Nusrat al-Islam, led by Iyad Ag Ghali.

The group was formed by the merger of Ansar Dine, the Macina Liberation Front, Al-Mourabitoun and El Hamame’s Saharan branch of AQIM.

The operation was announced as Parly, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian were due to visit Mali, where some 4,500 French troops have been deployed since 2014 to reconquer the north of the country after it fell to jihadist fighters.