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PARIS — France's top military officer said Monday it was "probable" that Abou Zeid, an al-Qaida leader in North Africa, was killed in military operations by French and Chadian forces in northern Mali.
In recent days, Chadian officials, including President Idriss Deby, have said that military forces have killed at least two senior militant leaders that led al-Qaida-linked groups that controlled northern Mali for 10 months until French forces in January launched a military operation in support of the Malian government.
In a French radio interview Monday, Adm. Edouard Guillaud, the head of France's joint chiefs of staff, said that French forces can't immediately inspect the damage from every laser-guided bomb that they fire on militants' positions and could not confirm whether Abou Zeid, an Algerian-born warlord and feared radical leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb behind the kidnapping of several Westerners, had been killed.
"It's probable, but it's only probable," Guillaud told Europe-1. "We cannot be certain for the moment — it would be good news — because we haven't recovered the body." Chad's Deby announced Friday that Chadian troops had killed Abou Zeid in recent days.
The rare public comments from Guillaud came as British Foreign Secretary William Hague was arriving in Mali for talks with members of its long-embattled government to discuss the political process in the West African nation. Hague was meeting with Mali's president and prime minister, as well as the commander of an African-led intervention force and the deputy head of a European Union training mission for Malian armed forces.
Western nations such as France, Britain and the United States are hoping that Mali can hold elections in July if the security situation in this impoverished African country can be stabilized. Upon his arrival Monday, Hague said Mali is "at the heart of" complex political and security challenges that "have the potential to affect the wider region," according to a foreign office statement.
Guillaud said thousands of French and other African troops are facing a force of some 1,200 to 1,500 "real combatants" in Mali.
Chad's military chief, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue, said Saturday that his troops deployed in northern Mali had killed Mokhtar Belmoktar, the suspected mastermind of the Algerian hostage-taking in January that left at least 36 foreigners dead. Known as the "one-eyed," Belmoktar's profile soared after the deadly siege in mid-January.
Guillaud said he was cautious about the unverified chatter on Internet jihadist forums saying Belmoktar was still alive.
With military operations now involving 4,000 French troops in the former French colony into their seventh week, Guillaud said French soldiers backed mostly by forces from the north-central African nation of Chad had "cleansed" Monday a valley in the moonscape-like Adrar des Ifoghas range along the Algerian border. Since a stepped-up hunt for militants began Feb. 18, the troops have turned up more than 50 weapons caches and about 10 weapons workshops that pointed to "an industrial organization of terrorism," he said.
Overall, Guillaud said, the French-led operation involving a punishing air and ground campaign is "breaking the kidneys" of AQIM.