US strike 'missed Islamist leader'
The US military said it believes weekend air strikes killed an al Qaida-linked militant leader in eastern Libya who was charged with leading the attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013 that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans.
However, an Islamist with ties to Libyan militants aid the strikes missed Mokhtar Belmokhtar and instead killed four members of a Libyan extremist group the US has linked to the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi on September 11 2012 in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
US officials said they are still assessing the results of Saturday's strike, but Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said the military believes the attack was successful and hit its target. Neither US officials nor the Libyan government provided proof of Belmokhtar's death.
"I can confirm that the target of last night's counter-terrorism strike in Libya was Mokhtar Belmokhtar," Col Warren said. "Belmokhtar has a long history of leading terrorist activities as a member of (al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), is the operational leader of the al Qaida-associated al-Murabitun organisation in north-west Africa and maintains his personal allegiance to al Qaida."
A US official said two F-15 fighter jets launched multiple 500lb bombs in the attack. Authorities said no American personnel were on the ground for the assault.
This is not the first time authorities have claimed to have killed Belmokhtar, a militant believed to be in his 40s who reportedly lost his eye in combat and fought in Afghanistan. He was one of a number of Islamist fighters who have battled Algeria's government since the 1990s, later joining al Qaida.
Intelligence officials said Belmokhtar essentially built a bridge between AQIM and the underworld, creating a system where various blends of outlaws now support each other and enrol local youth. He has been linked to terror attacks and the lucrative kidnapping of foreigners in the region.
The US filed terrorism charges in 2013 against Belmokhtar in connection with the Algeria attack. Officials have said they believe he remained a threat to US and Western interests. Belmokhtar had just split off from al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to start his own franchise.
The Libyan government said in a statement yesterday that the strike targeting Belmokhtar came after consultation with the US so America could take action against a terror leader there.
One government official in Libya said an air strike in the north-eastern coastal city of Ajdabiya hit a group of Islamic militants also believed to be linked to al Qaida and that it killed five and wounded more.
He said the group that was wounded later fought the Libyan military guarding the hospital there, leading to an hours-long battle. The official could not confirm that was the same strike that killed Belmokhtar.
The Islamist told the Associated Press early today that Belmokhtar was not at the site of the US air strike. He said the strike killed four Ansar Shariah members in Ajdabiya, some 530 miles (850 km) east of the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
American officials have linked Ansar Shariah to the September 11 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi.
The charges filed against Belmokhtar by federal law enforcement officials in Manhattan included conspiring to support al Qaida and use of a weapon of mass destruction. Additional charges of conspiring to take hostages and discharging a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence carry the death penalty.
At the time, US Attorney Preet Bharara said in a release that Belmokhtar "unleashed a reign of terror years ago, in furtherance of his self-proclaimed goal of waging bloody jihad against the West".
Authorities also offered a 5 million US dollar reward for information leading to the arrest of Belmokhtar.
The air strike comes as al Qaida militants in eastern Libya continue to battle with members of the Islamic State, as the warring groups fight over power and resources.
And the US has been involved before in the fight against extremists in Libya.
In 2013 US special forces went into Tripoli and seized Abu Anas al-Libi, whisking him out of the country. Al-Libi was accused by the US of involvement in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in Africa. Al-Libi died in January this year in a US hospital from a long-standing medical condition.
Last week, a senior al Qaida leader was killed by masked gunman, prompting the group to declare holy war on the local Islamic State affiliate. Clashes between the two groups in the eastern coastal city of Darna killed 11 people.
Libya has been divided between an Islamist-led government backed by militias that seized Tripoli last August and its elected parliament, which now must convene in the far east of the country.
Militants have taken advantage of the chaos, flowing fighters into the country's vast ungoverned spaces. And as the Islamic State group has grown in power, fuelled by successes in Iraq and Syria, some al Qaida fighters have switched loyalties.
In its statement yesterday, the Libyan government said the operation "is a piece of the international support that it has long requested to fight terrorism that represents a dangerous threat to the regional and international situation".
It added that the government would like more help fighting terrorism, including the Islamic State group, which controls Sirte and is moving west toward Misrata and south toward the Jufra military base.