French forces have captured in Mali a man they describe as a "high-ranking fighter of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara" (EIGS), the French army's chief of staff said on Wednesday.
Dadi Ould Chouaib, also known as Abou Dardar, was arrested on June 11 in the flashpoint "tri-border" region between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, the site of frequent attacks by jihadist groups, the army official said.
He was carrying "an automatic weapon, a night vision telescope, a combat vest, a telephone and a radio", but surrendered without resistance.
Dardar was formerly a member of the Al-Qaeda-linked Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), many of whose fighters joined EIGS.
First arrested in 2014, he was handed over to the Mali authorities.
But he was one of around 200 jihadist prisoners released in October 2020 in exchange for four hostages, including French aid worker Sophie Petronin.
Dardar is suspected to have been one of the armed men who mutilated three people at a market in Tin Hama in the north of Mali on May 2, cutting off their hands and feet, according to local sources.
According to the UN's Mali mission, MINUSMA, the armed men were presumed to belong to EIGS.
Dardar's arrest will come as welcome news for France, after President Emmanuel Macron promised in February to step up efforts to "decapitate" al-Qaeda-linked insurgent groups in the semi-arid region.
France's strategy is to target the leaders of the militant groups.
Its military presence in the Sahel, Operation Barkhane, recently called for the elimination of a high-ranking fighter of the Al-Qaeda group in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an adversary of the EIGS in the area.
Baye Ag Bakabo was responsible for the kidnapping and death of two French RFI journalists, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, murdered in Kidal (northern Mali) on November 2, 2013.
Macron recently announced that France, the former colonial power in the region, will wind down its 5,100-strong Barkhane force that has battled jihadists in the Sahel since 2013.
Macron said earlier this month he sees France's future presence as being part of the so-called Takuba international task force in the Sahel in which "hundreds" of French soldiers would form the "backbone".
It would mean the closure of French bases and the use of special forces who would be focused on anti-terror operations and military training, he said.
But Macron's plans have fuelled fears that certain areas of the Sahel, in particular northern Mali, will pass completely into the hands of jihadist groups, as the local states seem unable to restore their authority in the region.