A French military offensive in Mali has killed a militant leader linked to al-Qaeda who is believed to have helped orchestrate the kidnapping and killing of two French journalists in 2013, France’s defense minister said Friday.
Three other extremists were also killed in the June 5 anti-terrorist operation around Aguelhok in northern Mali, Florence Parly said in a statement. The operation was targeting a group suspected of plotting an attack on UN forces in the area.
French authorities identified one of those killed as Baye ag Bakabo, considered to be behind the kidnapping and killing of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, journalists for Radio France Internationale, in November 2013.
The killings prompted new efforts to protect journalists in conflict zones.
RFI reported Friday that the militant leader drove the beige pick-up truck used for the kidnapping, and that in recent months he had headed an armed group tasked with “eliminating all people suspected of collaborating" with French forces operating in Africa's Sahel region.
RFI expressed regret that he was killed instead of captured, saying “his testimony could have removed zones of doubt that continue to cast a shadow on this case.” Only one member of the unit behind the kidnapping remains alive, RFI said.
The announcement of his death came the day after French President Emmanuel Macron announced a scaling back of French forces in the Sahel and a “profound transformation” of France’s military operation in Mali and neighboring countries so that it relies more on regional partners.
"We are not changing the objective, which is to continue the fight against terrorism. What changes is the approach," Parly told Franceinfo radio on Friday morning.
"France remains committed in the Sahel. France's military engagement will remain very significant," she said, declining to give details on the troop reductions.
Macron said on Thursday details would be finalized by the end of June after consultations with African and international partners, but that the focus would now be on special forces carrying out counter-terrorism operations.