France said on Friday that its military has killed al-Qaeda's North Africa chief Abdelmalek Droukdel, a key fighter who its forces had been hunting for more than seven years, during an operation in Mali.
"On June 3, French army forces, with the support of their local partners, killed the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and several of his closest collaborators, during an operation in northern Mali," French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly wrote on Twitter.More: Thousands in Mali's capital demand President Keita step down Many killed in central Mali ethnic attacks: Officials Family of kidnapped Soumaila Cisse says Mali gov't 'moving too slow'
There was no immediate confirmation of his death from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM.
Droukdel's reported death comes almost six months after French President Emmanuel Macron and the leaders of the G5 Sahel group - Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad - launched a new plan combining their military forces under one command structure to fight armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) group.
France, a former colonial power in the region, deployed 600 additional soldiers to its Barkhane force, raising the number of troops there to 5,100.
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In a March video released by the monitoring group SITE, Droukdel urged governments of the Sahel region to try to end the French military presence, calling the troops "armies of occupation".
The Algerian native was among North Africa's most experienced fighters. He took part in al-Qaeda's takeover of northern Mali before a French military intervention in 2013 drove them back and scattered fighters across the Sahel region.
Droukdel was believed to be hiding in the mountains of northern Algeria. AQIM was the dominant force in the region, staging several high-profile deadly attacks until 2013, when it fractured as many fighters flocked to ISIL as it seized territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
It remained active in North Africa's largely desert and often scarcely governed Sahel region. In Mali, it focused its activities to the north in Libya and Tunisia. As ISIL waned, the group has sought to lure new talent from among ISIL veterans.
Parly identified Droukdel as a member of al-Qaeda's "management committee". Related operations in the region also led to the arrest May 19 of a major figure in ISIL (ISIS) in the Greater Sahara, Mohamed el Mrabat, she said.
"Our forces, in cooperation with their local partners ... will continue to track these [people] down without respite," Parly said.
Critics in the region have increasingly scorned Paris for failing to restore stability. Anti-French sentiment has grown as fighters have strengthened their foothold, making large swathes of territory ungovernable and stoking ethnic violence.
Parly said earlier this week that about 100 special forces from other European countries would be deployed to the region to support French and regional troops.