THE Libyan government says he is dead, his militant group denies it, France says it is “very probable” he is departed and the US, which is said to have killed him in an airstrike, just won’t talk.
Confusion swirled over the fate of Al-Qaeda-linked militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, nicknamed variously as “The Uncatchable”, “Mr Marlboro” and “The One-Eyed” and who allegedly masterminded the siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages died.
The Pentagon early this week confirmed Belmokhtar had been the target of air strike in eastern Libya, but has since refused to confirm that the strike by two F-15 Strike Eagle fighter jets armed with 500-pound bombs had succeeded in killing its target.
This has created fertile room for his group, the North African Al-Murabitoun, to deny what would be a significant hit to its organisational capabilities.
In a statement released Thursday through the Mauritania-based Al-Akhbar news agency the group said Belmokhtar had not been in the region of eastern Libya at the time of the strike on Sunday.
And Libyan jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia named seven people it said were killed in the strike, but said Belmokhtar was not among them.
Belmokhtar had his first contact with Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, eventually joining the group that became Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) after he returned to Algeria in 1993.
But he was pushed out as one of AQIM’s top two leaders in northern Mali for what one regional security official said were his “continued divisive activities despite several warnings”.
Belmokhtar founded his Al-Qaeda breakaway group “Signatories in Blood” group in 2012, later merging it with MUJAO, one of the jihadist groups that seized control of northern Mali in early 2012, to form the Al-Murabitoun group.
But interestingly his former group Al-Qaeda in North Africa early Friday denied reports that he had been killed.
The mujahid Khaled Abu al-Abbas is still alive and well,” said the statement from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, using the name by which Belmokhtar is widely known in jihadist circles.
“The real target of the air strike was the Libyan lions,” the extremist group said, referring to fighters in the strife-torn North African country.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday it is “very probable” that Belmokhtar had been killed, but he admitted he could not be sure.
In an interview with French news channel BFMTV, Le Drian said: “We are not sure about it. There was a strike by the US army which targeted a place where he was supposed to be. But I cannot confirm his death. It’s very probable, but it’s still not certain.”
Belmokhtar has been reported dead on several previous instances. He was previously thought to have been killed in Mali, but security sources said last year he had moved to Libya, seizing on the lawlessness that ensued after a NATO-backed revolt unseated longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.