Sahara Islamist leader Belmokhtar dismisses Islamic State pledge: report

NOUAKCHOTT (Reuters) - Veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar has rejected a pledge of allegiance to Islamic State by the co-founder of his al-Mourabitoun Islamist group, revealing a rift in one of the Sahara's most dangerous militant groups.

Last week, Mauritania's Alakhbar news website posted a recording of a speaker calling himself Adnan Abu Waleed al-Sahrawi claiming to speak on behalf of al-Mourabitoun and urging all jihadi groups to follow Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Al-Mourabitoun was established in 2013 by uniting fighters loyal to Belmokhtar, one of the Sahara's best known jihadists, and MUJWA, an Islamist group operating in West Africa that was headed by Al-Sahrawi.

Alakhbar, which regularly receives messages from Islamist groups operating in the region, reported at the weekend Belmokhtar had issued a statement saying the pledge was invalid as it had not been approved by al-Mourabitoun's shura council.

A statement from the shura would be issued soon, it added.

Belmokhtar has fallen out with the leadership of al Qaeda's North Africa wing, AQIM, but repeatedly pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahri, the group's overall leader.

A mix of Islamists, including MUJWA and Belmokhtar's fighters, occupied northern Mali in 2012 before being scattered by a 2013 French offensive. They continue to attack local and international forces in Mali.

Nigeria's Boko Haram has already pledged allegiance to Islamic State, but al-Mourabitoun would be the first Sahara-based outfit to link up with the Sunni Islamist group.

Islamic State, an ultra-hardline offshoot of al Qaeda, has declared a caliphate in captured territory in Iraq and Syria and has gained global notoriety for posting videos of its members killing Arab and Western hostages.

(Reporting by Kissima Diagana; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)