French forces have killed Bah ag Moussa, a military leader of al Qaeda's North Africa wing, during an operation in northeastern Mali, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said on Friday.
The former Malian army colonel, also known as Bamoussa Diarra, was a right-hand man of Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Mali's most prominent jihadi group, Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).
The jihadist outfit has repeatedly attacked soldiers and civilians in Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso.
"A historic figure of the jihadist movement in the Sahel, Bah ag Moussa is considered responsible for several attacks against Malian and international forces," Parly said in a statement.
Moussa, who was on the US terrorism list, was killed on Tuesday after an operation involving ground troops and helicopters and comes after a series of operations that have seen French forces kill dozens of Islamist fighters in recent weeks.
"This is a major success in the fight against terrorism," Parly said.
Moussa was believed to be responsible for multiple attacks on Malian and international forces in the country, French military spokesman Col. Frederic Barbry told reporters on Friday.
Surveillance drones helped French forces in Mali identify Moussa’s truck in the Menaka region of eastern Mali, which was then targeted by the helicopters and 15 French commandos sent to the scene, Barbry said. All five people in the truck were killed after they ignored warning shots and fired on the French forces, he said.
Barbry described it as an act of “legitimate defense” and said the bodies were handled “in conformity with international humanitarian law.” He would not comment on whether allied forces including the US contributed intelligence to the operation.
Former colonial power France has more than 5,100 personnel spread across the region with a large portion in Mali operating against rising militancy.
Islamist insurgents were forced from power in northern Mali after a 2013 French-led military operation, but regrouped in the desert and now launch frequent attacks on the Malian army and its allies.
The French military announced its latest operation on the fifth anniversary of the terrorist attacks that killed 130 people in Paris, targeting the Bataclan concert hall, cafes and the national stadium.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AP)