A veteran Islamist militant blamed for masterminding an Algerian gasfield attack and running smuggling routes across North Africa, has been killed in a U.S. air strike inside Libya, Libya\’s recognized government said on Sunday.
The government said the strike had killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant who became a major figure in insurgencies across North Africa and the Sahel and had earned the nickname the "Uncatchable" from the French military.
Earlier, the U.S. Department of Defense said the U.S. military conducted a counterterrorism strike against an al Qaeda-associated target in Libya on Saturday night, but were assessing results before providing more details.
"The Libyan government in the east of Libya confirms that U.S fighter jets conducted air strikes last night in a mission which resulted in the death of the terrorist Belmokhtar," Libya\’s recognised government said.
Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said she had no more information on the target of the strike.
Belmokhtar has been reported killed several times, including in 2013 when he was believed to have died in fighting in Mali. He has earned a reputation as one of the most elusive jihadi leaders in the region.
If confirmed, the death of Belmokhtar, who was blamed for orchestrating the 2013 attack on Algeria\’s In Amenas gasfield in which 40 oil workers died, and for several foreign kidnappings, would be a major strike against al Qaeda-tied in the region.
Once associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb\’s Algerian leadership, Belmokhtar broke from them, but remained tied to the al Qaeda central leadership even after forming his own group "Those who sign in Blood".
Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and Libya\’s slide into chaos and fighting between two rival governments, the North African state has seen the rise of Islamist militant groups, who have taken advantage of the turmoil.
Some are allied with al Qaeda\’s leadership, others have local loyalties and some have recently declared allegiance with Islamic State, which has been gaining ground.
Libyan officials gave no further details about the area of the strike. But before the U.S. statement, Libyan military sources said an air strike on Saturday in Ajdabiya city near Benghazi had killed seven members of the Ansar al Sharia militant group.
One local resident there said they had seen what appeared to be an air strike much more accurate than ones carried out by local Libyan air forces.
Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran of Afghanistan and Algeria\’s own 1990s Islamist war, had long been a major figure in Saharan smuggling, hostage-taking, arms trafficking and insurgencies, including the conflict in Mali.
Four years after the fall of Gaddafi, the United Nations is trying to broker an end to the stand-off between two rival factions and governments, and close a security vacuum that has allowed Islamic State militants to gain a foothold in Libya.