PARIS: France said on Tuesday that dozens of militants have been killed in the bloodiest phase of the Mali conflict to date, but it remained unclear if key commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar was among them.
Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno on Monday reiterated his belief that Belmokhtar had been killed during fierce fighting in recent days in the Ifoghas mountains, on Mali’s northeastern border with Algeria.
Deby said his government had only refrained from displaying his body out of respect for Islamic principles.
Radio France International (RFI) has published a picture, taken by a Chadian soldier, of what it believes to be the corpse of Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January assault on an Algerian gas field that left 37 foreign hostages dead.
But French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Tuesday it was not clear the Algerian commander, a one-eyed Afghanistan veteran, had been killed.
“We can’t be sure it is him,” Le Drian said.
“If the Chadian president can bring us proof, so much the better. If it is true it would be very good news but it would not resolve everything.”
An Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) source who on Monday confirmed the death of another prominent militant, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, insisted that Belmokhtar was still alive and fighting.
France continues to regard reports of the deaths of Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar as unconfirmed and officials have been careful to avoid any statement smacking of triumphalism that could further endanger French hostages being held in the region.
The families of four French hostages believed to be held in the Ifoghas region have called for a pause in military action to allow for negotiations on their possible release.
Le Drian said he had reason to believe all 15 French hostages held in various parts of Africa were still alive.
“We have had indications to that effect but I don’t want to say any more about that. Suffice to say, if the kidnappers had killed any of them, they would have made it known.” Le Drian said.
Ethnic Tuareg separatists in Mali called on the International Criminal Court on Tuesday to launch an investigation into alleged atrocities committed by soldiers during the conflict in the west African nation.
“Soldiers have engaged in acts of torture, summary executions and forced disappearances” in several areas including Timbuktu and Gao, the Azawad National Liberation Movement said in a statement.
Meanwhile, first battalion of Malian troops trained by EU instructors is expected to be operational in July and ready to deploy in northern Mali if needed, the head of the training mission said Tuesday.
“One can imagine that a first Malian battalion could be deployed as such in July, with its command structures to operate and conduct operations in the north,” said French General Francois Lecointre, who heads the 550-strong European Union Training Mission in Mali.
Training is scheduled to begin on April 2 at the Koulikoro base some 60 kilometres from the capital, Bamako.
Of the 550 troops from 22 nations, some 150 are trainers, the remainder being made up of the protection force as well as medical and administrative staff.
France is the biggest contributor to the force with 207 troops, followed by Germany with 71, Spain with 54, Britain 40, Czech Republic 34, Belgium 25 and Poland 20.