Fog of war clouds identity of slain Islamist fighters

The fate of two leading Islamist militants reported to have been killed in northern Mali remained unclear Tuesday -- to the extent that two French media published the same image of a corpse but disagreed over its identity.

Paris Match magazine said an image posted on the weekly's website was of the body of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelhamid Abou Zeid.

Twenty-four hours earlier, Radio France Internationale (RFI) put up an identical image on its site, saying it depicted the slain body of Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

The Paris Match image, obtained from a Chadian journalist, is of better quality than RFI's, which was a picture of the image on a mobile phone. But neither was sufficiently clear to establish with any certainty whether the dead man was Abou Zeid, Belmokhtar or someone else.

Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar are of similar age with similar angular features and dark beards specked with grey.

Other pictures circulating in the Chadian capital N'Djamena, which clearly show the bodies of two different dead men, may meanwhile indicate that both Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar have been killed, as the country's president Idriss Deby Itno has stated.

An AQIM source on Monday confirmed to a Mauritanian news agency that Abou Zeid had been killed last week in the Ifoghas mountains of northern Mali but insisted that Belmokhtar was still alive.

France has been unable to confirm the death of either man but has said it regards reports of the demise of Abou Zeid as "likely" to be correct while advising caution over Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January assault on an Algerian gas field that left 37 foreign hostages dead.

Both RFI and Paris Match said they had acted in good faith on Tuesday.

"It's the Chadian army saying it's him. We've never said it was him," RFI's deputy editor in charge of new media, Christophe Champin, told AFP.

Paris Match, meanwhile, said it cross-referenced "several sources" to identify the man as Abou Zeid.

"One clearly recognises his face and certain details in his clothing. The photo was taken in his stronghold," said senior news editor Caroline Mangez. "DNA samples are understood to have been carried out on the body, according to the Chadian army," she added.