French air strikes in the mountains of northern Mali have killed Oumar Ould Hamaha, a rebel fighter known as Red Beard who was the subject of a $3m US bounty, a Malian military source said.
“Omar Ould Hamaha, the terrorist of Malian nationality, is one of 10 terrorists killed last week by French planes,” the officer told AFP late on Thursday.
He died “with weapons in hand”, the source said.
The French defence minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said last week as many as 12 al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) fighters had been killed in a counter-terrorism operation by French forces between March 4 and 5.
The AQIM fighters were spotted in the Amettetai Valley, in the Kidal region, by French forces operating the US-made Reaper drones, Drian said.
Hamaha, known as ‘Red Beard’ because of his use of henna on his facial hair, became a leading figure in the rebel coalition that seized control of northern Mali in April 2012.
A French-led military offensive launched in January 2013 broke the grip of the al Qaeda-linked fighters over northern Mali, but small pockets of rebels have continued to operate in the vast desert region.
Hamaha was a long-standing member of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the group’s North African arm, and a close associate of veteran Algerian fighter Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
According to the bounty offered under the US State Department’s ‘Rewards for Justice’ programme, Hamaha had participated in the kidnapping and ransom of several foreigners, including Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler from Niger in 2008.
During the rebels’ 10-month rule over northern Mali, Hamaha became a spokesman for the Movement for Unity and Jihad in the Islamic Maghreb (MUJWA) that imposed strict sharia law in his hometown of Timbuktu.
Fighters there cut the hands off thieves and flogged women for dressing immodestly.
He defended the rebels ‘ destruction of the ancient caravan town’s historic mausoleums, sacred to Sufi Muslims and part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.
France is winding down its troop presence in Mali as a 12,000-strong UN mission slowly comes up to full strength.
Paris still has about 1,600 troops in Mali trying to mop up rebel cells in the north. It has said it will redeploy its forces across the region to counter rebel groups.