Libya says Algerian militant Belmokhtar killed in U.S. strike

TRIPOLI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Libya's recognized government said on Sunday that Algerian veteran militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a major figure in North African and Sahel Islamist insurgencies, has been killed in a U.S. air strike inside Libya. Earlier, the U.S. Department of Defense said the U.S. military conducted a counter terrorism strike against an al Qaeda-associated target in Libya on Saturday night, but were assessing results before providing more details. "The Libyan government in the east of Libya confirms that the U.S fighter jets conducted air strikes last night in a mission which resulted in the death of the terrorist Belmokhtar," Libya's recognized government said. Pentagon spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said she had no more information on the target of the strike. Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and Libya's slide into chaos and fighting between two rival governments, the North African state has seen the rise of Islamist militant groups, who are taking advantage of the turmoil. Some are allied with al Qaeda's leadership, others have local loyalties and some have recently declared allegiance with Islamic State, which has been gaining ground. Belmokhtar has been reported killed several times, including in 2013 when he was believed to have been killed in Mali. He has earned a reputation as one of the most elusive jihadi leaders in the region. If confirmed, the death of Belmokhtar, who was blamed for orchestrating the 2013 attack on Algeria's In Amenas gasfield and dubbed "Uncatchable" by French forces, would be a major strike against al Qaeda-tied operations in the region. Libyan officials gave no further details about the area of the strike. But before the U.S. statement, Libyan military sources said that an air strike had been carried on Saturday in Ajdabiya city near Benghazi, killing seven members of the Ansar al Sharia militant group. Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran of Afghanistan and Algeria's own 1990s Islamist war, was long a major figure in Saharan smuggling, hostage-taking, arms trafficking and insurgencies, including the conflict in Mali. (Reporting by Ahmed Elumami in Tripoli and Peter Cooney in Washington; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Sandra Maler)