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Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar 'killed in Mali'

media captionMokhtar Belmokhtar is a former al-Qaeda leader

Islamist militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been killed by Chadian soldiers in Mali, Chad's armed forces say.

His death was announced on Chadian state television but has not been confirmed by other sources.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar is a former al-Qaeda leader said to have ordered January's attack on an Algerian gas plant where at least 37 hostages were killed.

Chadian troops are fighting Islamist militants in Mali as part of an international force led by France.

The French president's office says a French soldier was killed in northern Mali on Saturday - the third to die since France launched its intervention in Mali on 11 January.

'Final stages'

The statement carried by Chadian television on Saturday said: "Chadian forces in Mali completely destroyed the main jihadist base in the Adrar de Ifhogas mountains... killing several terrorists including leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar."

Weapons, equipment and 60 vehicles were seized, it added.

Reports of the killing came a day after Chadian President Idriss Deby said the country's forces killed al-Qaeda militant Abdelhamid Abou Zeid during clashes in northern Mali.

Abou Zeid - whose death is still to be confirmed by DNA evidence - is said to be second-in-command of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is fighting foreign forces in Mali.

The French military - which is leading the military offensive in northern Mali - has not confirmed either death.

BBC West Africa correspondent Thomas Fessy says the death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been falsely announced several times before.

Although this is the most official claim to date, there are questions about how the Chadian military were able to confirm the militant's identity so quickly, our correspondent says.

On Friday French President Francois Hollande said the Mali operation was in its final stages.

Islamist militants took refuge in the remote mountains in northern Mali, close to the Algerian border, after being forced out of the main towns and cities by French troops backed by jets and helicopters.

Mali's army and troops from several African countries, including 2,000 from Chad, have also been involved in the fighting.

Islamist rebels took control of northern Mali a year ago after a military coup in the capital Bamako, in the south.

France intervened militarily in January amid fears they were preparing to advance on Bamako.

'Mr Marlboro'

Algerian-born Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been fighting as an Islamist militant for more than two decades.

He claimed to have received military training in Afghanistan before returning to Algeria, where he lost an eye fighting in the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s.

He then joined AQIM - which operates across the Sahara - before breaking off to lead his own group.

The attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria - which he claims he was behind - was his group's first large-scale armed attack.

He is also known as "Mr Marlboro" because of his alleged role in cigarette smuggling in the region.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid have also been involved in numerous kidnappings.

Abu Zeid is known as the most ruthless al-Qaeda field commander in the region and is believed to have executed at least two European hostages in recent years, our West Africa correspondent reports.

If the two deaths are confirmed, they won't mean the war in Mali is over, but they will leave a vacuum in the chain of command for the jihadi fighters hiding in the mountains bordering Algeria, he says.

The reported killings also raise concerns about the fate of several foreign hostages believed to be in the two men's custody, our correspondent says.