PARIS (Reuters) - French forces in northern Mali have killed a senior commander of the al Mourabitoun Islamist group who was wanted by the United States, a defense ministry spokesman said on Thursday.
The United States had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest of Ahmed al Tilemsi, who took part in the 2011 kidnapping of two French nationals in Niger and three aid workers in Algeria later that year.
Al Tilemsi was a founding member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), which merged with fighters loyal to veteran Islamist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form al Mourabitoun last year.
“Last night, we launched an operation in the Gao region in coordination with Malian forces,” Colonel Gilles Jarron told reporters in Paris. Tilesmi was killed in the operation and a dozen other Islamists were ‘neutralized’, he said. It was not clear whether neutralized meant killed or arrested.
A statement from Mali’s government read on state radio said the Malian army took part in the operation, in which at least six Islamist militants were killed and three more captured.
MUJWA, Belmokhtar’s men and members of al Qaeda’s north Africa arm, AQIM, formed a loose alliance of fighters that seized northern Mali’s desert regions in 2012.
The militants were scattered by a French offensive in January 2013, and France has kept about 3,200 troops in the Sahara-Sahel region as part of a counter-insurgency force.
An additional 200-400 special forces have a mandate to hunt leaders of the Islamist groups that have killed dozens of U.N. peacekeepers in attacks in recent months.
The last of the French hostages held by the militants was freed this week. However, sources said Mali released at least two Islamists in return, angering local rights groups.
The release of Mahamed Aly Ag Wadoussene and an accomplice, suspected of involvement in the 2011 kidnapping and a jail break in Bamako during which a prison guard was killed, has sparked a strike by the prison guards’ union in the Malian capital.
The central prison in Bamako has been surrounded by security forces since Wednesday following the decision to strike.
“We decided to go on strike to demand reparation. We do not understand why someone who killed a prison guard in cold blood can be released like this,” said Abdoulaye Fofona, secretary-general of the guards’ union.
Additional reporting by Gerard Bon in Paris and Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Larry King