Chad President Deby: Al-Qaeda's Abou Zeid killed in Mali

This Al-Andalus image grab taken on September 30, 2010 from a video released today shows Abu Zeid (L), also known as Abid Hammadou, posing with fighters of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
Image caption Abou Zeid (l) is said to have been one of the most violent al-Qaeda commanders in the region

A senior al-Qaeda militant has been killed in northern Mali, Chadian President Idriss Deby has said.

He said the country's forces killed Abdelhamid Abou Zeid during clashes in the remote region.

He is said to be second-in-command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is fighting foreign forces in Mali.

The Algerian national is accused of killing two Western hostages - Briton Edwin Dyer in 2009 and Frenchman Michel Germaneau the following year.

BBC West Africa correspondent Thomas Fessy says that, if confirmed, his death will immediately raise questions over the state of several French hostages who are widely believed to have been in Abou Zeid's custody.

A US official - speaking on condition of anonymity - said Washington found reports that Abou Zeid was killed "very credible", according to the AFP news agency.

However, France reacted with caution to the reports, with government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem stressing that his death was so far unconfirmed.

Earlier unverified reports in the French media said that the militant was killed during fighting against French army units.

In January France sent some 3,500 troops to northern Mali to oust various Islamist militant groups who had seized a vast area of the Sahara desert.

Chad is one of several African countries to have supported the French operation.

'Most violent commander'

After recapturing the region's main towns, French and Chadian troops have been battling Islamist fighters in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains north of Kidal, where the militants had regrouped, in recent weeks.

Algeria's Ennahar TV reported earlier this week that Abou Zeid was among 40 militants killed in the area near the Algerian border.

"Chadian forces killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid," President Deby said on Friday.

He was speaking after the funerals of Chadian soldiers killed in the fighting.

"On February 22, we lost several soldiers in the Ifoghas mountains after destroying the jihadists' base. This was the first time there was a direct confrontation with the jihadists, " the president was reported as saying.

Algerian media have reported that security operatives have taken DNA samples from two of Abou Zeid's relatives to compare with the body which is reportedly his.

Abou Zeid - believed to be in his 40s - was known as the most violent al-Qaeda commander in the region.

He was last seen in public in the Malian cities of Timbuktu and Gao seized by Islamist groups last year.

Francoise Larribe whose husband, Daniel, was abducted while working in Niger in 2010, told French media she feared "reprisals if he really has lost his life in a military operation".