PARIS, Feb 22 - French troops fighting Islamist militants in Mali have killed a one of the Sahel region's leading jihadists, France's defense minister said on Friday.
Yahia Abou Hamman was the number two in command of Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an umbrella group for al Qaeda-linked insurgents in West Africa's Sahara. The group claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks to disrupt Mali's election last July, and more recent strikes in Burkina Faso.
"The removal of a prominent leader helps to dismantle the networks and disrupt terrorist activities in the region," Defence Minister Florence Parly said in a statement.
Soldiers belonging to France's Barkhane force, deployed in the Sahel, identified Hamman as he traveled in a convoy north of Timbuktu on Feb. 21, Parly said. In an operation involving air and ground assets, French troops killed several militants, including Hamman, she added.
Violence by Islamist militants has proliferated in the sparsely-populated Sahel in recent years, with groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State using central and northern Mali as a launchpad for attacks across the largely desert region.
French forces intervened in Mali, a former French colony, with the support of the Bamako government in 2013 to isolate a Tuareg uprising that broke out a year earlier. Some 4,500 French troops remain based in the wider Sahel, most of them in Mali.
The U.N. Security Council then deployed peacekeepers, which have been targets of a concerted guerrilla campaign.