Libya says 'uncatchable' veteran militant killed in US strike

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A veteran Islamist militant blamed for a deadly attack on an Algerian gas field and who ran smuggling routes across North Africa has been killed in a U.S. air strike inside Libya, Libya's government said on Sunday.

The recognized government said the strike had killed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant who became a major figure in insurgencies across North Africa and the Saharan border region and was dubbed "The Uncatchable" by the French military.

The U.S. military confirmed Belmokhtar had been targeted in Saturday night's air strike but did not say if he was killed.

The Pentagon was continuing to assess the results of the operation, spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said in a statement.

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Mokhtar Belmokhtar - Islamist militant killed in U.S. airstrike - Libya
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Libya says 'uncatchable' veteran militant killed in US strike
This wanted poster from the website of the U.S. State Department's Rewards For Justice program shows a mugshot of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, charged with leading the attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013 that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans. The U.S military said on Monday, June 15, 2015 it likely killed the al-Qaida-linked militant leader when it launched airstrikes in eastern Libya over the weekend. (U.S. State Department Rewards For Justice via AP)
FILE - In this Jan. 31, 2013 file photo, Algerian soldiers and officials stand in front of the gas plant in Ain Amenas, seen in background, during a visit organized by the Algerian authorities for news media. The U.S. said the military launched an airstrike Saturday, June 13, 2015, targeting an al-Qaida leader in eastern Libya who has been charged with leading the attack on the gas plant in Algeria in 2013 that killed 35 hostages, including three Americans. The Libyan government and U.S. officials said warplanes targeted and likely killed Mokhtar BelMokhtar and several others. (AP Photo, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2013 file photo, Algerian firemen carry a coffin containing the body of a person killed during the gas facility hostage situation at the morgue in Ain Amenas, Algeria. The U.S. said the military launched an airstrike Saturday, June 13, 2015, targeting an al-Qaida leader in eastern Libya who has been charged with leading the attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013 that killed 35 hostages, including three Americans. The Libyan government and U.S. officials said warplanes targeted and likely killed Mokhtar BelMokhtar and several others. (AP Photo/Anis Belghoul, File)
This recent but undated view made available Monday Jan. 21, 2013, showing the damaged natural gas plant after Islamist militants attacked it and took hostages at Ain Amenas, Algeria. The militants were wearing Algerian army uniforms and were equipped with explosives to blow up the plant, according to Algeria’s Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, who said Monday that at least 81 people died in the four-day operation by government forces to liberate the hostages, including 32 Islamist militants. Five foreigners are still reported as missing. (AP Photo)
In this undated photo, men look at the wreckage of a vehicle near Ain Amenas, Algeria. Algerian bomb squads scouring a gas plant where Islamist militants took dozens of foreign workers hostage found "numerous" new bodies on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 as they searched for explosive traps left behind by the attackers, a security official said, a day after a bloody raid ended the four-day siege of the remote desert refinery. (AP Photo/Echorouk Elyaoumi)
In this image taken from Algerian TV broadcast on Sunday Jan. 20 2013, showing what it said was the aftermath of the hostage crisis at the remote Ain Amenas gas facility in Algeria. Algerian special forces stormed the plant on Saturday to end the four-day siege, moving in to thwart what government officials said was a plot by the Islamic extremists to blow up the complex and kill all their captives with mines sown throughout the site. (AP Photo/Algerie TV via Assiaciated Press TV) ** TV OUT ALGERIA OUT **
In this image taken from Algerian TV broadcast on Sunday Jan. 20 2013, showing what it said was the aftermath of the hostage crisis at the remote Ain Amenas gas facility in Algeria. Algerian special forces stormed the plant on Saturday to end the four-day siege, moving in to thwart what government officials said was a plot by the Islamic extremists to blow up the complex and kill all their captives with mines sown throughout the site. (AP Photo/Algerie TV via Assiaciated Press TV) ** TV OUT ALGERIA OUT **
Two British hostages Peter, left, and Alan, right, (no family name available), are seen after being released, in a street of Ain Amenas, near the gas plant where they have been kidnapped by Islamic militants, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. Algeria's special forces stormed the natural gas complex in the middle of the Sahara desert in a final assault Saturday, killing 11 militants, but not before they in turn killed seven hostages, the state news agency reported.(AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)
Rescued hostages hug each other in Ain Amenas, Algeria, in this image taken from television Friday Jan. 18, 2013. Algeria’s state news service says nearly 100 out of 132 foreign hostages have been freed from a gas plant where Islamist militants had held them captive for three days. The APS news agency report was an unexpected indication of both more hostages than had previously been reported and a potentially breakthrough development in what has been a bloody siege. (AP Photo/Canal Algerie via Assiaciated Press TV) ** TV OUT ALGERIA OUT **
FILE - This Jan. 31, 2013, file photo shows Algerian soldiers standing guard during a visit for news media organized by the Algerian authorities at the gas plant in Ain Amenas, seen on background. New corruption scandals are shining a fresh spotlight on Sonatrach, which jointly with BP and Norway’s Statoil runs the desert gas plant that was the scene of a bloody hostage standoff last month. (AP Photo/File)
Algerian soldiers stand at the entrance of the gas plant, in Ain Amenas, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, as the Algerian government shows the site of a recent hostage crisis to journalists for the first time since the incident. The Algerian gas plant attacked by militants will soon be partially operational, announced its director on Thursday during a tour on the site for local and international media. Lotfi Benadouda, the director of the Ain Amenas plant, which is jointly run by Algeria's Sonatrach, Britain's BP and Norway's Statoil said one of three gas units was only lightly damaged and would be returned to operation soon. (AP Photo)
Algerian soldiers stand guard at the gas plant in Ain Amenas, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, as the Algerian government shows the site of a recent hostage crisis to journalists for the first time since the incident. The Algerian gas plant attacked by militants will soon be partially operational, announced its director on Thursday during a tour on the site for local and international media. Lotfi Benadouda, the director of the Ain Amenas plant, which is jointly run by Algeria's Sonatrach, Britain's BP and Norway's Statoil said one of three gas units was only lightly damaged and would be returned to operation soon. (AP Photo)
Algerian special police unit officers guard the entrance of an hospital located near the gas plant where hostages have been kidnapped by Islamic militants, in Ain Amenas, Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013. Algeria's special forces stormed the natural gas complex in the middle of the Sahara desert in a final assault Saturday, killing 11 militants, but not before they in turn killed seven hostages, the state news agency reported.(AP Photo/Anis Belghoul)
A part of the gas plant in Ain Amenas is seen during a visit for news media organized by the Algerian authorities, Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013. The Algerian gas plant attacked by militants will soon be partially operational, announced its director on Thursday during a tour on the site for local and international media. Lotfi Benadouda, the director of the Ain Amenas plant, which is jointly run by Algeria's Sonatrach, Britain's BP and Norway's Statoil said one of three gas units was only lightly damaged and would be returned to operation soon. (AP Photo)
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Libya's internationally recognized government, which sits in the eastern town of Bayda, said the U.S strike had killed Belmokhtar at a gathering with other militant leaders, who it did not name.

Libyan officials gave no further details about the area of the strike. But Libyan military sources said an air strike on a farmhouse on Saturday in Ajdabiya city near Benghazi had killed seven members of the Ansar al Sharia militant group who had been meeting there.

ELUSIVE 'GANGSTER-JIHADIST'

Belmokhtar earned a reputation as one of the most elusive jihadi leaders in the region. He has been reported killed several times, including in 2013 when he was believed to have died in fighting in Mali.

If confirmed, the death of Belmokhtar - who was blamed for orchestrating the 2013 attack on Algeria's In Amenas gas field in which 40 oil workers died, and for several foreign kidnappings - would be a major strike against al Qaeda-tied groups in the region.

Once associated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's Algerian leadership, Belmokhtar broke from the group but remained tied to al Qaeda's central leadership even after forming his own group "Those who sign in Blood".

The one-eyed veteran of Afghanistan and Algeria's own 1990s Islamist war had long been a major figure in Saharan smuggling, hostage-taking, arms trafficking and insurgencies, including the conflict in Mali.

Linked to a string of kidnappings of foreigners in North Africa in the past decade, Belmokhtar, who was born in Algeria in 1972, earned a reputation as one of the most important "gangster-jihadists" of the Sahara.

He also gained prominence as a supplier of arms to Islamist groups and as a trafficker of cigarettes, which gained him the nickname "Mister Marlboro" among the local population in the Sahara.

LASER-GUIDED?

Since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and Libya's slide into chaos and fighting between two rival governments, the North African state has seen the rise of Islamist militant groups, which have taken advantage of the turmoil.

Some are allied with al Qaeda's leadership, others have local loyalties and some have recently declared allegiance with Islamic State, which has been gaining ground.

Ansar al-Sharia is listed as a terrorist organization by the United States after it was blamed for the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate compound in Benghazi that led to the death of the American ambassador.

In 2013, U.S. special forces carried out a raid on Tripoli to capture Abu Anas al-Liby - a Libyan suspected in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 civilians.

European states and Libya's North African neighbors have grown alarmed at Islamic State's expansion beyond its strongholds in Iraq and Syria to a chaotic country just across the Mediterranean sea from mainland Europe and with little control over its porous borders.

One Ajdabiya city resident said Saturday night's air strike had appeared to be much more accurate than ones carried out by local forces. The resident said it appeared to be laser-guided.

"It was a really accurate strike," the witness said.

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