DAKAR (Reuters) - French forces killed a Spaniard working as an al Qaeda commander in northern Mali during a military operation against the group this week, a Spanish intelligence firm and security sources said.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that emerged from Algeria’s civil war, has stepped up a regional insurgency in West Africa, claiming two hotel attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso’s capitals since November that killed at least 50 people.
U.S. Africa Command calls it the world’s “most enduring” extremist group and a U.S. commander warned last month it could strengthen further.
“The death of (Abu al-Nur al-Andalusi) happened during an attack by French forces on a meeting of al Qaeda members in northern Mali,” AICS, a Spain-based intelligence company said in a statement sent to Reuters on Wednesday, citing local sources.
The firm’s CEO Salvador Burguet described al-Nur as a 35-year-old from Melilla, an autonomous Spanish enclave in north Africa. For at least the past year he has been leading a Katiba, or brigade, made up of around 25 fighters in the desert area north of Timbuktu, Burguet said.
Two other security officials in Mali confirmed al-Nur’s death, adding two French operations were made in the Gao and Timbuktu regions earlier this week. It was not clear how many other militants were killed.
Spain’s Foreign Ministry said they did not have information on the case and French defense officials declined to comment.
Al-Nur has been involved in a number of attacks against the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country, known as MINUSMA.
An AQIM video in September showed a smiling al-Nur, wearing sun-glasses, encouraging others to join militants in Mali in Spanish, according to a video released by the SITE global intelligence agency.
He then boards a truck with a group of fighters to ambush a U.N. vehicle and begins firing bullets into an apparently lifeless pile of bodies.
The U.N. said at least six Burkinabe soldiers were killed in that attack.
Separately, MINUSMA said six peacekeepers were wounded on Tuesday when their vehicle hit a landmine in northern Mali.
French forces intervened in northern Mali in 2013 to drive out Islamic militants from urban centers but scattered bands of fighters remain in desert areas.
France is the largest Western power involved in fighting insurgents in the arid Sahel region, with around 3,500 troops based there.
Reporting by Emma Farge; Additional reporting by Paul Day in Madrid, Adama Diarra in Bamako and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Editing by Janet Lawrence