The death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the jihadist mastermind behind the Algerian gas plant siege in January, could have dangerous repercussions for French hostages held by Islamist militants, experts have warned.
The lives of the 15 French hostages held in Africa, and especially those of seven captured in northern Mali who may be being used as human shields, could be seriously endangered if the jihadist leader is confirmed dead.
"This is a rumour that is enormously worrying for the families and those of us who support them," Didier Beguin from the support committee for four French hostages abducted by radical Islamists in Niger in September 2010, said..
In an announcement on Chadian national television on Saturday night military spokesperson Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue said Belmokhtar was among those killed after troops "completely destroyed a terrorist base" in the north of Mali.
Other reports also claimed the death of Adelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior figure Al-Qaeda in the Magreb (AQIM).
French forces and other allies fighting in the country have been unable to confirm the killings. Belmokhtar's death has been proclaimed in the past, and conclusive positive identification may yet take days or weeks.
William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, also stressed that the killing was unconfirmed, but added that if it were true "it would be a blow to terrorism and to the criminal network around this man and other people".
Belmokhtar, 40 became the target of an international manhunt after he claimed responsibility for the attack at the In Amenas gas complex in eastern Algeria that led to the death of at least 37 hostages, including six Britons.
An Algerian national and an ally of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden from his days of fighting in Afghanistan – the nexus from which many of today's global jihadists were formed- this one-eyed terrorist broke away from AQIM to form his own group, chillingly called 'Signatories in Blood'.
Despite his religious extremism, the terrorist gained the nickname "Malboro Man" after it emerged that he had funded his jihad by smuggling cigarettes, as well as through financial extortion and kidnapping.
The announcements came as allies continued attacks on AQIM in the mountains of northern Mali.
On Sunday France said a soldier from the First Parachute Chasseur Regiment was killed in the fighting. It is the third fatality suffered by France since the beginning of the war in mid-January. Some 50 rebel fighters were also reportedly killed since Friday.