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France confirms death of al-Qaida chief in Mali

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:39 p.m.

PARIS — The death of a top al-Qaida-linked warlord in combat with French-led troops represents a victory in the battle against jihadists who had a stranglehold on northern Mali. But it is far from the defining blow against a wily enemy that can go underground and regroup to renew itself.

Even the fearsome Abou Zeid is replaceable.

A top commander of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, Abou Zeid had been in the crosshairs of the French military and their African partners since they moved in to Mali on Jan. 11 to rout radicals. An announcement Saturday by the French president's office that Abou Zeid's death in late February has been “definitively confirmed” ends weeks of speculation about his fate.

Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an Algerian thought to be 47, was a pillar of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb's southern realm, responsible for the death of at least two European hostages and a leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali. He joined a succession of radical insurgency movements in Algeria starting in the early 1990s.

President Francois Hollande's office said the death of Abou Zeid “marks an important step in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel,” where the Sahara meets the sub-Saharan jungle, encompassing several nations where radicals are on the rise.

French officials have maintained for weeks that the Abou Zeid was “probably” dead but waited to conduct DNA tests to verify.

But jihadists have shown again and again that they can overcome the death of individual warlords. Even French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said that eliminating leaders “doesn't solve everything.”

“It's the entire structure that has to be put down and not this or that leader,” he said in an interview with Le Monde this month.

Al-Qaida rebounded after commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan were killed. Leaders of jihadist movements in Algeria that gave birth to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb were killed and seamlessly replaced.

The top AQIM leader in Mali, with the title Emir of the Grand Sahara, Nabil Makloufi, was quickly replaced after being killed last fall in a road accident, said Matthieu Guidere, an expert on radical Islam who monitors AQIM and other jihadist movements.

The new top emir, Yahya El-Hammam, could step into Abou Zeid's warlord role, according to one scenario.

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