By Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - French special forces have killed the second-in-command of the feared Islamist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar in an operation in the region of Tessalit in northern Mali, security sources said on Thursday.
Hacene Ould Khalill, a Mauritanian known by his nickname Jouleibib, was the deputy commander of Belmokhtar's 'Those who sign in blood' brigade, formed when the veteran Algerian jihadi split with al Qaeda's North African wing.
The group has claimed attacks on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria in January in which 38 hostages died and the twin suicide bombing of an Areva uranium mine and a military barracks in Niger in May.
"He was killed near Tessalit," said one of the security source. A second source confirmed the operation had been carried out by French special forces.
Khalill's death comes as Islamist groups in northern Mali have stepped up their operations in recent months with attacks on U.N. peacekeepers and the killing of two French journalists in the northern town of Kidal on November 2.
The attacks have sown concerns over security in northern Mali ahead of legislative elections due on Sunday. The vote will complete a democratic transition following a military coup in March 2012 which plunged the West African nation into chaos, allowing separatist and Islamist rebels to seize its north.
France launched a massive military intervention in January which broke the Islamists grip over northern Mali's towns.
On Thursday, at least three rockets launched by Islamist militants rocked Gao, the largest town in the region, local residents and military sources said. No-one was reported killed.
"We heard three big explosions between 5.30 and 6.00 a.m.," said resident Kader Toure. "Military planes are flying over the town right now."
U.N. peacekeepers have stepped up patrols in the town.
(Additional reporting by David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by Daniel Flynn)