Nicosia (AFP) - The militant group Al-Murabitoun, which has claimed a string of deadly attacks in North Africa, has declared itself a branch of Al-Qaeda in a statement posted on jihadist websites.
Al-Murabitoun said that the notorious Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar remained its leader, despite reports that he was killed in a US air strike in Libya in June.
The statement dated July 17 says that Al-Murabitoun is "Qaeda al-Jihad in West Africa" and committed to "directives" by network founder Osama bin Laden to attack the enemy "France and its allies".
Belmokhtar, whose real name is Khaled Abu al-Abbas, allegedly masterminded the 2013 siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages, mainly Westerners, were killed.
An audio recording attributed to another leading member of Al-Murabitoun in May pledged allegiance to the Islamic State jihadist organisation.
But Belmokhtar reportedly soon distanced himself from the declaration and vowed backing for IS's jihadist rival Al-Qaeda in what was seen as a sign of a power struggle.
The one-eyed Belmokhtar, a former chief of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who was nicknamed "The Uncatchable" by an ex-French intelligence chief, was twice condemned to death by Algeria.
He had been reported killed in Mali at least once before the United States, which placed a $5 million bounty on his head, targeted him in an air strike in Libya in June.
At the time Al-Murabitoun denied he was killed, claiming that Libyan militants were the target of the US strike.
The group has claimed a series of attacks over the years, including a deadly hostage drama at a Mali hotel earlier this month in which 13 people died including five UN workers.
Belmokhtar founded his Al-Qaeda breakaway group "Signatories in Blood" in 2012, later merging it with MUJAO, one of the jihadist groups that seized northern Mali in early 2012, to form Al-Murabitoun.