Jihadists deny Mali leader killed in French-led attack

France has deployed a 4,500-member Barkhane force in the region to repel attacks and stem insurgency (AFP Photo/STRINGER)

Nouakchott (AFP) - Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Tuesday denied that Malian jihadist leader Amadou Koufa had been killed during a November raid by French forces, according to a statement released by the Mauritanian news agency Alakhbar.

International media reported that Koufa was killed along with 34 others but he was not at the site and he was neither killed nor wounded, AQIM chief Abdelmalek Droukdel said, according to the transcript of an audio recording translated into English and broadcast by Alakhbar, which frequently publishes statements attributed to extremist groups.

Malian and French authorities had said Amadou Koufa was killed in a raid led by French troops in the centre of the country.

Koufa, a radical preacher, surfaced three years ago and was blamed for several violent attacks and for stoking sectarian conflict.

Droukdel claimed the announcement on the disappearance of the jihadist was a "manoeuvre" by Paris to divert the attention of the French people from what was happening in the street, an allusion to the "yellow vest" protests.

On November 23, the French army said it had conducted an operation the previous night in central Mali, Koufa's stronghold, which resulted in "30 terrorists" being "neutralised".

French armed forces minister Florence Parly had hailed the action "which made it possible to neutralise an important terrorist detachment in which was probably one of Iyad Ag Ghali's main assistants, Amadou Koufa".

Malian military sources had confirmed the death of Koufa, who had appeared in a video two weeks earlier with Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM), which has repeatedly struck military and civilian targets in Mali and neighbouring Burkina Faso.

"The terrorist Amadou Koufa died of his injuries after the French military intervention, following information provided by the Malian army, General Abdoulaye Cisse, chief of operations of the Malian army, said.

France helped Malian forces stave off a jihadist insurgency that took control of large parts of the north in 2012, but large swathes of the country remain out of the government's control.

The former colonial ruler has deployed the 4,500-member Barkhane force in the region to repel attacks and stem insurgency.