July 3, 2015 / 5:18 PM / in 2 years

Tunisian militant chief probably died in U.S. air strike: source

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A veteran Tunisian militant was probably killed by a U.S. air strike on a jihadist meeting in Libya last month whose main target was a top Algerian fighter, a U.S. official said on Friday.

Tunisian Saifallah Benhassine, also known as Abu Iyad, was a major figure among militant Islamists in North Africa. The U.S. official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said he was thought to have died in the June 13 strike on Ajdabiya city near Benghazi.

The Pentagon declined to comment. Tunisian officials did not respond to a request for confirmation.

Benhassine's death in the strike was first reported this week by local Tunisian radio. His group, Ansar al-Sharia, was blamed for an attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in 2012.

A veteran of conflict in Afghanistan, Benhassine went underground after his group was declared illegal in Tunisia and had been reported to be in Libya several times by local media.

News of his likely death came a week after an Islamist gunman attacked a Tunisian beach resort, killing 38 foreign holidaymakers, mainly Britons.

U.S. military officials last month confirmed the air strike had targeted veteran Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar as he was meeting with other jihadis. But Washington has yet to confirm he was killed, and several militant groups have denied his death.

Reporting by Phil Stewart; writing by Patrick Markey in Tunis; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

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