Updated: 03/05/2013 20:10 | By Agence France-Presse

Mali conflict in bloodiest phase yet

France said Tuesday that dozens of Islamist militants have been killed in the bloodiest phase of the Mali conflict to date, but it remained unclear if key commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar was among them. 

Mali conflict in bloodiest phase yet

Mali conflict in bloodiest phase yet

Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno on Monday reiterated his belief that Belmokhtar had been killed during fierce fighting in recent days in the Ifoghas mountains, on Mali's northeastern border with Algeria.

Deby said his government had only refrained from displaying his body out of respect for Islamic principles.

Radio France International (RFI) has published a picture, taken by a Chadian soldier, of what it believes to be the corpse of Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January assault on an Algerian gas field that left 37 foreign hostages dead.

But French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday it was not clear the Algerian commander, a one-eyed Afghanistan veteran, had been killed.

"We can't be sure it is him," Le Drian said. "If the Chadian president can bring us proof, so much the better. If it is true it would be very good news but it would not resolve everything."

An Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) source who on Monday confirmed the death of another prominent militant, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, insisted that Belmokhtar was still alive and fighting.

France continues to regard reports of the deaths of Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar as unconfirmed and officials have been careful to avoid any statement smacking of triumphalism that could further endanger French hostages being held in the region.

The families of four French hostages believed to be held in the Ifoghas region have called for a pause in military action to allow for negotiations on their possible release.

Le Drian said he had reason to believe all 15 French hostages held in various parts of Africa were still alive. "We have had indications to that effect but I don't want to say any more about that.

"Suffice to say, if the kidnappers had killed any of them, they would have made it known. We understand the anguish of the families but we are doing everything we can to secure the release of their relatives."

Le Drian said dozens of militants had been killed in recent days, including 15 overnight.

Chad, which has lost 27 of its own troops in the fighting, put the toll of Islamist fighters slain in the Ifoghas at 70 and has said eight fighters have been taken prisoner.

Three French soldiers have been killed since the intervention was launched in January in response to a push south by hundreds of AQIM and other fighters who took control of northern Mali last year.

The French forces met relatively little resistance as the Islamist groups were pushed back from central Mali. Malian officers have said dozens of the rebels were slain during the opening weeks of the campaign but those claims have not been verified.

Le Drian said French and Chadian troops were now involved in a "pincer movement" against rebels based in the Ametettai valley.

He warned the high-risk operation in the rugged terrain was likely to go on for some time because of the need to secure neighbouring valleys.

French officials say their operation in the Ifoghas, during which troops have seized more than 50 weapons caches, has already confirmed their worst fears regarding the "industrial" scale of AQIM and its allies' operation in Mali.

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