France’s army confirmed on Tuesday that its special forces had killed a prominent commander with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s north African branch, during a weekend operation in the northern Mali region of Kidal.
France led a military operation to drive Islamist militant groups, including AQIM, out of northern Mali in 2013 after they seized the vast, desert zone a year earlier amid a Tuareg uprising.
However, Islamist militants have intensified operations this year raising regional fears of a spillover in violence, with Malian group Ansar Dine claiming responsibility for a series of recent attacks against U.N. soldiers and Malian army targets.
The French army said it had killed Mohamed Ali Ag Wadossene, identified as a local operations chief for AQIM, during an operation in Mali’s Kidal region on Sunday.
Ag Wadossene was among several militants freed by the Malian government as part of a deal in December that saw AQIM release Serge Lazarevic, a French citizen taken hostage by the group three years earlier.
He was believed to have been involved in planning Lazarevic’s kidnapping but was later captured and imprisoned in Mali before his release as part of the trade.
“This operation, which destablises the chain of command of one of AQIM’s katibas (brigades), once again delivers a heavy blow to terrorist armed groups in the Sahel,” the French army said in a statement.
Two other suspected militants were captured in the operation.