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Chad claims Al Qaeda commander killed

French military personnel patrolled the damaged market area of downtown Gao in Mali. The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back militants.

Tanya Bindra/EPA

French military personnel patrolled the damaged market area of downtown Gao in Mali. The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back militants.

N'DJAMENA, Chad — The head of Chad’s military announced on state television Saturday that troops deployed in northern Mali killed Moktar Belmoktar, the international terrorist responsible for the attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria that resulted in the death of dozens of foreigners.

The French military, which is leading the offensive in northern Mali, says it cannot confirm the information.

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Army Chief of Staff General Zakaria Ngobongue read a statement saying Chadian soldiers on Saturday had destroyed a jihadist base in the Adrar and Ifoghas mountains of North Mali, killing Belmoktar.

The purported death of Belmoktar comes a day after Chad’s president said their troops killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the other main Al Qaeda commander in the region, a claim the French also said they could not confirm.

President Idriss Deby announced that Chadian troops killed Abou Zeid while fighting to dislodge an Al Qaeda affiliate in northern Mali.

The death of Abou Zeid, an Algerian warlord and leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, also could not be verified. The group has been implicated in the kidnapping of several Westerners, and Abou Zeid's death would be a big blow to his group and its growing influence in North and West Africa.

Abou Zeid was an archrival of Belmoktar, whose profile soared after a mid-January attack on a huge Algerian gas plant and a mass hostage-taking which left 37 hostages and 29 attackers dead.

Officials in Mali and in France, which is leading an international military intervention in Mali against Islamic extremists linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, could not confirm Abou Zeid’s death. The White House had no immediate reaction to the announcement. The United States has offered drones and intelligence help to the French-led operation.

The Chadian president’s spokesman said that Deby announced the death of Abou Zeid during a ceremony Friday for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting in Mali.

Deby said, ‘‘It was our soldiers who killed two big Islamist chiefs in northern Mali,’’ including Abou Zeid, according to the spokesman.

The spokesman insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak ahead of an announcement on state television on the matter. It was unclear when it was expected, and the spokesman gave no further details.

Chadian television showed images of Friday’s tribute to the fallen soldiers from Chad, a row of coffins draped with the blue, yellow and red flags, and dignitaries from Chad and neighboring countries.

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, who led one of the most violent brigades of Al Qaeda’s North African franchise and helped lead the extremist takeover of northern Mali, was thought to be 47 years old.

He was a pillar of the southern realm of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, responsible for the death of at least two European hostages. He was believed to be holding four French nationals kidnapped two years ago at a uranium mine in Niger. The fate of those hostages, working for French company Areva, was unclear Friday night.

Abou Zeid held a Frenchman released in February 2010, and another who was executed that July. He’s also been linked to the execution of a British hostage in 2009.

The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back militants linked to Abou Zeid and other extremist groups.

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