French forces kill JNIM deputy leader El Hamame in Mali, Parly says

French forces have killed a top jihadist group leader, Yahya Abou El Hamame, in an operation in Mali, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly said Friday.

The Algerian, believed to be the deputy leader of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (JNIM), was reputedly responsible for kidnapping a number of Westerners in North and West Africa.

El Hamame was believed to be second in command of JNIM, also known as Nusrat al-Islam, led by Iyad Ag Ghali.

JNIM is Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s branch in Mali, and was formed in 2017 by the merger of several smaller groups including the Sahara branch of AQIM, Ansar Dine and Al-Mourabitoun. Its leadership has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.

A ministry statement issued in Paris said he was “the mastermind and financer of several attacks.”

El Hamame was killed Thursday, February 21 when French land and air forces ambushed a column of vehicles he was traveling with north of Timbuktu, Parly said.

The defense ministry said that a Reaper drone supported the operation.

He reportedly served as AQIM’s “governor” in Timbuktu when the city was held by Islamist rebels from April 2012 to January 2013.

A number of other “terrorists” were “neutralized,” Parly added.

Parly later tweeted that Hamame was “identified in a group of vehicles” before the operation.

The operation was announced as Parly, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian were due to visit Mali, where some 4,500 French troops have been deployed since 2014.

The recent unrest in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012 with Tuareg separatist uprising against the state, which was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north.

France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, but the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, sometimes winning over local populations by providing basic services and protection from bandits.

The insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali, and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

Large swathes of the country remain outside government control, despite a 2015 peace accord designed to isolate the Islamists.

The French mission evolved into the current Operation Barkhane, which has roughly 4,500 French personnel deployed with a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the region.

Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside the U.N. Minusma stabilization mission in Mali, which began in 2013 and has about 12,000 troops and 1,750 police deployed, as well as the G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel.

With reporting from AFP

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