French troops in Mali kill wanted jihadist's deputy: security sources

The French army has killed the second-in-command of wanted Algerian jihadist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar in an operation in northern Mali, security sources told AFP on Wednesday.

Hacene Ould Khalil, who went by the nom de guerre Jouleibib, was killed last week in the Tessalit region, said a regional security source who told AFP the Mauritanian national was Belmokhtar's "genuine right-hand man".

Jouleibib was the deputy commander of the Signatories in Blood, an armed unit founded by Belmokhtar last year after the one-eyed Algerian broke away from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

France's military spokesman in Paris would not comment on the operation but a second regional security source in Mali confirmed the information.

"Two other terrorists were killed during the operation, a vehicle was destroyed and the French soldiers, who pulled off quite a coup, also recovered documents including a (satellite) telephone number which will provide valuable information," the source said.

As well as being a fighter, Jouleibib also acted as a spokesman for the Signatories in Blood.

"He was responsible for the management of the group. It is truly a blow to Belmokhtar," the source added.

France's chief of defence staff in Paris said last Thursday that French forces had "neutralised" several Al-Qaeda members in northern Mali.

The special operation overnight in the desert also led to the seizure of weapons, Admiral Edouard Guillaud said on Europe 1 radio.

He did not specify if the Al-Qaeda members had been killed or captured but said the operation took place 200-250 kilometres (125-155 miles) to the west of Tessalit.

The Signatories in Blood allegedly masterminded a siege in January of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages died.

Branded "The Uncatchable", Belmokhtar is also thought to have been behind twin car bombings in Niger in May that left at least 20 people dead.

The Algeria siege and the Niger assaults were said to have been carried out in retaliation for France's military intervention launched in January against Islamist groups in Mali.

Belmokhtar was involved in the fighting against Chadian forces in Mali and was reported to have been killed in action in March.

The reports, however, were never confirmed and it is believed that he remains at large.

He has been designated a foreign terrorist by the United States since 2003, with the State Department offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.