N'DJAMENA/GAO, Mali (Reuters) - One of al Qaeda's most feared commanders in Africa, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, has been killed by Chadian forces in northern Mali, Chad's President Idriss Deby said on Friday.
French officials said they could not confirm the report.
"It was Chadian forces who killed two jihadi leaders, including Abou Zeid," Deby told opposition politicians in the presence of journalists after a funeral ceremony for Chadian soldiers killed in fighting at the weekend.
Chadian soldiers with support from French special forces and fighter jets are hunting down pockets of al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the border region with Algeria after a seven-week French-led campaign broke Islamist domination of northern Mali.
The death of Abou Zeid, who has earned AQIM tens of millions of dollars with a spate of kidnappings of Westerners in the Sahara over the last five years, would be a significant but far from fatal blow to the group.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed mastermind of a mass hostage-taking at the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria last month, remains at large. So does Tuareg Islamist leader Iyad ag Ghali, who was this week placed on the U.S. global terrorist list.
Sources close to Islamist militants and tribal elders had earlier said Abou Zeid, blamed for kidnapping at least 20 Westerners in the Sahara, was among 40 militants killed within the past few days in the foothills of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.
Algeria's Ennahar television, which is well connected with Algerian security services, had reported his death on Thursday but there was no official confirmation.
A former smuggler turned jihadi, Algerian-born Abou Zeid is regarded as one of the most ruthless operators of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He is believed to have executed British hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 and 78-year-old Frenchman Michel Germaneau in 2010.
A trusted lieutenant of AQIM's leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, Abou Zeid imposed a violent form of sharia law during Islamist domination of the ancient desert town of Timbuktu, including amputations and the destruction of ancient Sufi shrines.
"The death of Abou Zeid has been confirmed by several of his supporters who have come back from the mountains," said Ibrahim Oumar Toure, a mechanic in the northern Malian town of Kidal who worked with Islamist rebels and remains in contact with them.
Members of the MNLA Tuareg rebel group, who have been acting as scouts for French and Chadian forces, said Islamist prisoners seized during the fighting confirmed Abou Zeid and another militant leader had been killed.
However, French government spokeswoman Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said she could neither confirm nor deny the report, and French officials urged caution. An official MNLA spokesman said the group had no evidence to prove he was dead.
French radio RFI and Algerian daily El Khabar reported that DNA tests were being conducted on members of Abou Zeid's family to confirm whether a body recovered by French troops after fighting in Adrar des Ifoghas was indeed the Islamist leader.
HOLLANDE SAYS OPERATION NEARS END
In a speech on Friday, French President Francois Hollande said the operation in Mali was in its final stage and he was not obliged to confirm Abou Zeid's death.
"Terrorist groups have taken refuge and are hiding in an especially difficult zone," he said. "Information is out there. I don't have to confirm it because we must reach the end of the operation."
A U.S. official and a Western diplomat, however, said the reports appeared to be credible.
According to local sources in Kidal, MNLA Tuareg rebels, who are working with French forces, had located Abou Zeid's fighters and handed over the coordinates for French jets to strike.
"They were hidden in mountain caves and were building bombs for suicide attacks when they were killed," Toure said.
Abou Zeid's death will be of particular interest to the French government as he is believed to be holding at least four French citizens kidnapped from Niger in 2010.
After its success in dislodging al Qaeda fighters from northern Mali's towns, France and its African allies have faced a mounting wave of suicide bombings and guerrilla-style raids by Islamists in northern Malian towns.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in Geneva on Friday that a U.N. peacekeeping force to replace French troops in Mali should be discussed as soon as possible.
(Reporting By Elizabeth Pineau in Paris, Lamine Chikhi in Algiers and John Irish and David Lewis in Dakar; Writing by John Irish and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Michael Roddy)