Saifi, better known as Abderrezak the Para, who was said by diplomats to have fought alongside GSPC fighters in clashes with Chadian soldiers in Chad's northern Tibesti region last week, "survived the fighting, but one of his lieutenants, named Bilal, was killed," an African diplomat in Mali said.

  

A Western military source in Bamako confirmed the report, saying that Abderrezak had been able to "return to the Algerian Sahara with a small group of followers".

 

The GSPC was behind the kidnapping last year of 32 European tourists in southern Algeria's vast Sahara desert, some of whom it held hostage for six months.

  

Hideout

 

A first group of hostages was released in May, when the Algerian army raided the kidnappers' hideout near the border with Libya, but a second group was made to trek across the desert into Mali, and was only released in August, reportedly after a hefty ransom was paid to the GSPC.

 

The military source said he was surprised at the toll given by the Chadian government for the clashes in Tibesti.

 

"The GSPC is in the process of reorganising, recruiting in the sub-region among poor people"

Unnamed African diplomat

Last week, the government in Ndjamena said in a statement that 43 GSPC fighters -"nine Algerians, with the rest from Nigeria, Niger and Mali" - had been killed in the clashes with Chadian forces, which lost three men and had 18 injured.

  

"According to us, no more than 15 Islamists were killed. And we want to see pictures of the prisoners allegedly taken by Chad," the military source said.

  

The radical Islamic group, the larger of two movements that have been fighting Algeria's secular government since 1992, has been hunted in at least three countries, but "that doesn't mean it has been eliminated, as some people tend to believe," said the African diplomat.

  

"We have to be very careful. The GSPC is in the process of reorganising, recruiting in the sub-region among poor people," he said.

  

Niger government sources said last week the army had "driven the extremists out" of northern Niger in late February after they attacked a convoy of tourists.