French-Mali sweep kills Islamic radical commander

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A militant Islamic commander who was the subject of a multimillion-dollar bounty issued by the United States has been killed in a French and Malian military operation in northeastern Mali, French defense officials said Thursday.

Ahmed el Tilemsi, a leader of the Mourabitoune militant group, was killed in an overnight operation Wednesday near the town of Gao, the officials said.

The French Defense Ministry's Web site says about 10 militants in total were "neutralized" during the sweep -- meaning they were killed or taken prisoner. It said the operation dealt "a heavy blow" to Mourabitoune and other terrorists in Africa's Sahel-Sahara region.

Col. Gilles Jaron, a military spokesman, said French forces who were working on intelligence information came into contact with an armed group outside Gao and a firefight quickly ensued. No French troops were injured, he said, declining to specify the number of French forces or type of military assets involved.

France has about 1,200 troops operating in Gao and other parts of vast northeastern Mali as part of a five-nation counterterrorism operation codenamed Barkhane, Jaron said. Since August alone, more than 50 militants have been neutralized and several tons of weapons have been seized by French and Malian forces.

El Tilemsi was a founding member of the militant Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa that fused with forces loyal to terror leader Moktar Belmoktar to form Mourabitoune. Belmoktar is seen by many as the most dangerous man in the Sahara: His loyalists led a brazen and deadly attack on a natural gas facility at Ain Amenas, Algeria, last year.

Jaron said El Tilemsi was considered the group's leader in the Sahel. Two years ago, the U.S. State Department offered a reward of up to $5 million for information leading to his location.