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France says Al Qaeda figure probably dead

PARIS — France said Monday for the first time that a key Al Qaeda-linked leader in Mali is probably dead. An activist close to the terror network’s North Africa branch was also reported to have confirmed the death of Algerian-born warlord Abou Zeid.

In recent days, key French ally Chad has said its troops in northern Mali killed Abou Zeid and another radical with links to Al Qaeda, Moktar Belmoktar, who was reportedly behind a hostage-taking of foreign workers at an Algerian gas plant in January that left dozens dead.

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If confirmed, their killings could mark an important turning point for France and its African allies in their quest to root out jihadists who took control of northern Mali last year. However, French officials say another top leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — Yahya Abou Elhamam — is still on the loose and wanted even more.

French forces launched a blistering military operation in January to drive back the extremists, while being backed by Chadian and Malian troops.

French officials repeatedly refused to comment after reports emerged last week about the killing of Abou Zeid, a feared leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who was said to be behind the kidnapping of several Westerners.

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