ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) -- Algerian army helicopters killed a high-level al-Qaida operative and four associates as they sped through the southern Algerian desert, a local official said Thursday.
Two four-wheel-drive vehicles carrying Khalil Ould Addah, also known as Abu Bassen, were hit as they traveled through the desert province of Tamanrasset north of the town of Ain Salah, said the official from Tamanrasset, the regional capital. He spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Arabic language daily al-Khabar said the attack happened Wednesday, adding that the militants had come from northern Mali and were heading to a meeting of top al-Qaida in North Africa leaders.
There was some debate about Ould Addah's exact position in al-Qaida. The paper described Ould Addah, a Mauritanian, as the "No. 3" in the organization, but others familiar with the group say he was probably a regional leader.
Al-Qaida's branch in the Sahara is led by Yahya Abou el-Hammam, an Algerian, and Ould Addah was likely one of his trusted commanders, according to Jean-Paul Rouillon, an expert on the group.
Al-Qaida's North African branch emerged out of the radical Islamist groups trying to overthrow the Algerian government during the 1990s. To this day, its top leaders are believed to be hiding out in the northern mountainous Kabyle region.
The group, however, has been much more successful establishing itself in the largely ungoverned desert south of Algeria's borders and established its own state in northern Mali with the help of Tuareg rebels in 2012.
French forces backed by African allies retook northern Mali earlier this year and scattered al-Qaida throughout the region.
In January, al-Qaida-linked groups attacked a southern Algerian natural gas facility at Ain Amenas, taking hundreds hostage before the army attacked, killing nearly all the militants. At least 40 hostages died in the standoff.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal and Paul Schemm in Rabat, Morocco contributed to this report.
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