'Capture not possible': France's desert operation against Al-Qaeda chief
Paris (AFP) - In a desert wilderness in Mali, near the Algerian border, strewn with insulated stones and weighed by oppressive heat, French special forces and attack helicopters begin an operation.
At their peak, they claim one of the greatest successes of French operations in the Sahel region of North Africa - the murder of Al Qaeda’s head in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Abdelmalek Droukdel.
The French military announced for the first time on Thursday how late last week the man he described as the "third representative" of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was "neutralized".
Officials describe the death of the Algerian Droukdel as the fruit of meticulous intelligence work.
This was completed by a military intervention in broad daylight, about ten kilometers from the Algerian border, east of the Malian city of Tessalit.
According to a source close to the operation, about fifteen French special forces were dropped by at least two transport helicopters, as well as a Tiger attack helicopter and a Gazelle multi-purpose helicopter with a drone as support.
"It was not possible to capture Droukdel," said the source, who asked not to be named.
"The aim is not necessarily to kill," said the official. But "in battle men only see stones" behind which fighters crouch. "You don't know who is behind the gun". The source added: "This type of individual does not arise".
- "Building Intelligence" -
The army does not disclose details of the exchange that took place during the operation, but only confirms that the fighting has taken place at close range.
"We knew that there was a target of interest in the region for two days. After that, it was all a matter of mutual support between the various information sources," said the source.
"It's about building it up," the official said, without revealing the source of the information, but confirming the aid from the United States.
Once the target was identified and localized, conditions in northern Mali slowed the progress of the armed forces on the ground at the beginning of the rainy season.
One person was captured and turned over to the Malian authorities after the French forces interrogated them during the operation.
The soldiers also confiscated important digital material, including phones, cards and computers. Your analysis could explain what Droukdel, who was usually very discreet, was doing in the region.
- 'Buried at the crime scene' -
There has been great struggle between groups associated with Al Qaeda and Islamic State groups in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS) for some time.
According to the French source, these were "violent" battles with "losses on both sides".
It has not been ruled out that this might have caused Droukdel's presence in the region.
"It's a real question," said the source, expressing hope that the analysis would shed more light.
The IS-GS was named enemy number one of the 5,000 strong French anti-jihadists Barkhane and their G5 Sahel allies Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in January.
But in the end it was an Al Qaeda figure that was killed in the operation.
"The fact that we have focused a number of our forces on the most virulent and pressing threat today has not distracted us from monitoring other branches," said the source.
After the operation was completed, the special forces "applied the standards of armed conflict: enemy combatants were buried at the scene."
In the meantime, the prisoner will "be responsible for his actions in court," the source said.
The official praised the operational efficiency of the French armed forces on the ground and in the air, saying they were able to develop in full swing in a secret situation at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
In military terms, these are "extremely rustic conditions," the source said.
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