Friday 24 November 2017

Al-Qa'ida 'one-eyed sheikh' killed in air strike by US

Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Photo: Reuters
Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Photo: Reuters

Richard Spencer in Washington

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the celebrated al-Qa'ida jihadist known as the "one-eyed sheikh" who led the 2013 attack on an Algerian gas plant that killed 39 people, has been killed in a US air strike, according to Libyan authorities.

The Pentagon confirmed it had struck an "al-Qa'ida-associated militant" in Libya on Saturday night, and that it was assessing the success of the operation.

There have been numerous previous, unfounded claims of Belmokhtar's death, which have only added to his mystique. However, the eastern-based Libyan faction that forms the internationally recognised government said it had participated in the operation.

"The Libyan government in the east of Libya confirms that the US fighter jets conducted air strikes last night in a mission which resulted in the death of the terrorist Belmokhtar," a statement said.

Eight other militants, belonging to another militant group Ansar al-Sharia, were said to have been killed at the same time.

The strike would be the first against a target in the North African country since the end of the war against Col Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The US-led coalition has been targeting Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) in both Iraq and Syria, and there had been speculation that campaign would be broadened due to the spread of Isil in Gaddafi's former home town of Sirte and other Libyan cities.

The Pentagon statement, however, made no mention of Isil.

Col Steve Warren, the spokesman, said the target had been an "al-Qa'ida-associated militant" and that the strike had been "successful", without elaborating.


"We are assessing the results of the operation and will provide additional information as and when appropriate," he said.

Col Warren said he did not know exactly where the strike was, or whether it was carried out by a jet or an unmanned drone.

But one report said it took place near the eastern city of Ajdabiya.

US officials later confirmed to US media that Belmokhtar was the intended target.

Belmokhtar led a renegade group of militants called al-Murabitoun, or The Sentinels, who rejected orders from the local branch of al-Qa'ida but were still seen as part of the broader movement.

He had recently denied reports that his group had joined Isil, saying he maintained his "bayah" or declaration of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of al-Qa'ida.

In January 2013, his group, then known as the "Masked Men Brigade" or "Those who sign in blood", seized control of a gas facility in the Algerian Sahara, holding hundreds of staff hostage. Among the 39 who died before it was liberated were six Britons.

Others fled as the Algerian army attacked, some with semtex explosive belts around their necks.

Belmokhtar was widely reported to have been based in lawless parts of the Libyan desert, and to have retreated there after the battle at the gas facility.

From there, he masterminded further strikes, including one on a nightclub in Mali earlier this year which killed five people.

Libya has plunged into a three-way war between forces loyal to the internationally-recognised government, now based in the east of the country, Isil, and a variety of Islamist-leaning militias which have seized power in the capital Tripoli.

(© Daily Telegraph London)

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