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.
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 the body out of respect for Islamic principles.
But French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Tuesday it was not clear that Belmokhtar, the mastermind of the January assault on an Algerian gas plant that left 37 foreign hostages dead, 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.
Various photographs of fighters killed in the area have been broadcast by Chadian television but are not of sufficient quality to establish with any certainty that either man is dead.
Besides the uncertainty, French officials have also been guarded about the reports for fear that any statement smacking of triumphalism 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 release.
Le Drian said he had reason to believe all 15 French hostages held in various parts of Africa were still alive.
"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," he said.
Le Drian said dozens of militants had been killed in recent days, including 15 overnight.
-- Stopping the 'peril' of extremism --
Chad, which has lost 27 of its soldiers in the fighting, put the toll of Islamist fighters slain in the Ifoghas at 70 and has said eight have been taken prisoner.
Chad's Foreign Minister Moussa Faki told AFP Tuesday that the government knew it would suffer losses in the northern Mali operation but deemed the risk necessary to fight the "peril" of Islamist extremists in the region.
"We are in a situation where we need to act to contain the peril where it is. If not, there is the risk that it will spread," he said.
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.
At the same time ethnic Tuareg separatists in north Mali have accused Malian soldiers of committing atrocities during the conflict and called on the International Criminal Court on Tuesday to launch an investigation.
"Soldiers have engaged in acts of torture, summary executions and forced disappearances" in several areas including Timbuktu and Gao, the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA) said in a statement.
French and Chadian troops were now involved in a "pincer movement" against rebels based in the Ametettai valley, the French defence chief said.
Le Drian warned that 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.
Plans were under way meanwhile to meet future security needs as the head of the EU training mission in Mali announced that a first battalion of Malian troops trained by EU instructors should be operational by July.
French General Francois Lecointre said the reference point for the trainers would be the Chadian army, which was well-adapted to its environment, and not a sophisticated Western-style army.