Paris: The French army said Thursday it had killed the commander of a major West African jihadist group`s branch in Mali in an operation in the north of the country.
Ahmed el Tilemsi was the emir of the Al-Murabitoun group in Mali and was earlier this year declared a "specially designated global terrorist" by the US State Department, who offered a $5 million reward (four million euros) for information leading to his capture.
"Last night... French forces conducted an operation in the Gao region (of northern Mali) in coordination with Malian authorities," army spokesman Gilles Jaron said, adding that Tilemsi had been killed.
"We`ve really hit Al-Murabitoun hard," said Jaron.
Tilemsi has a long history with jihadist groups operating in the Sahel region, having been a member of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) before becoming one of the founding members of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a splinter group aimed at spreading jihad throughout the region.
MUJAO was one of a number of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali last year, imposing a brutal interpretation of Islamic sharia law characterised by amputations, beatings and executions, before being ousted by the French-led military intervention.
In August 2013, it merged with a group run by notorious Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form Al-Murabitoun, which loosely translates as "the guardians" and claimed to seek revenge on France for its actions in Mali.
The one-eyed Islamist Belmokhtar split from AQIM in 2013 to form his own group and masterminded a deadly raid against Algeria`s In Amenas gas plant in which 38 hostages were killed in a four-day siege.
Tilemsi "was a very valuable target. We had been tracking him for several days," a government source told AFP.
The source said Tilemsi was one of the masterminds of the kidnapping of Gilberto Rodrigues Leal, who MUJAO claimed to have killed last April.
According to the US State Department, Tilemsi also played a role in the kidnapping of two French nationals in Niamey in January 2011 while part of AQIM. The hostages were later found dead after a failed rescue attempt by the French military.
Tilemsi also took part in the October 2011 kidnapping of three aid workers in Algeria, which left two wounded by gunfire, the State Department said.