The United States finds reports that one of the most notorious leaders of Al-Qaeda's North African wing has been killed in fighting with French troops "very credible," an official said Friday.
Speaking on condition of anonymity because the report has not been formally confirmed, the US official said that if Abdelhamid Abou Zeid was indeed slain in Mali "it would be a significant blow to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.""We find the reports very credible," he said.
Algeria's independent Ennahar TV reported this week that Abou Zeid, a senior leader among the Islamist fighters of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had been killed in northern Mali along with 40 other Islamist militants.
France has deployed troops to the area, backed by Chadian and Malian government forces, and has carried out airstrikes.
But French officials reacted with caution to the report, which is still being investigated by the military on the ground.
Algeria's El Khabar newspaper reported on Friday that authorities there had carried out DNA tests to try to confirm Abou Zeid's death.
"The security services are comparing DNA taken from two close relatives of Abou Zeid with samples taken from the remains of a body supplied by French forces," it said.
But French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem warned that reports of his death were so far unconfirmed.
French and African troops are hunting rebels they dislodged from northern Mali's main cities in a rapid campaign over recent weeks.
Abou Zeid, a 46-year-old whose real name is Mohamed Ghedir, was seen in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao after the Islamists took control last year and his presence stoked fears the region could become a haven for extremists.
An Algerian born near the border with Libya, Abou Zeid is a former smuggler who embraced radical Islam in the 1990s and became one of AQIM's key leaders.
He is suspected of being behind a series of kidnappings, including of British national Edwin Dyer, who was abducted in Niger and executed in 2009, and of 78-year-old French aid worker Michel Germaneau, killed in 2010.
Abou Zeid was also believed to be holding a number of Western hostages, including four French citizens kidnapped in Niger in 2010.
He is thought to have about 200 seasoned fighters under his command.