Senior Islamist militant killed in Mali

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French troops fighting Islamist militants in Mali killed one of the Sahel region’s leading jihadists, France’s defence minister said.

Yahia Abou Hamman was number two in command of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an umbrella group for al Qaeda-linked insurgents in West Africa’s Sahara. The group claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks to disrupt Mali’s election last July and more recent strikes in Burkina Faso.

“The removal of a prominent leader helps dismantle networks and disrupt terrorist activities in the region,” Defence Minister Florence Parly said in a statement.

Soldiers belonging to France’s Barkhane force, deployed in the Sahel, identified Hamman in a convoy north of Timbuktu on February 21, Parly said. In an operation involving air and ground assets, French troops killed several militants, including Hamman, she added.

Violence by Islamist militants has proliferated in the sparsely-populated Sahel in recent years, with groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State using central and northern Mali as a starting point for attacks across the largely desert region.

French forces intervened in Mali, a former French colony, with the support of the Bamako government in 2013 to isolate a Tuareg uprising that broke out a year earlier. Some 4,500 French troops remain based in the wider Sahel, most in Mali.

The UN Security Council then deployed peacekeepers, who have been targets of a concerted guerrilla campaign.