N'DJAMENA, Chad — Chad's military chief announced on state television late Saturday that his troops deployed in northern Mali had killed Moktar Belmoktar, the terrorist who orchestrated the attack on a natural gas plant in Algeria that left 36 foreigners dead.
The French military, which is leading the offensive against al-Qaida-linked rebels in Mali, said they could not immediately confirm the information.
Local officials in Kidal, the northern town that is being used as the base for the military operation, cast doubt on the assertion, saying Chadian officials are attempting to score a PR victory to make up for the significant losses they have suffered in recent days.
Known as the "one-eyed," Belmoktar's profile soared after the mid-January attack and mass hostage-taking on a huge Algerian gas plant. His purported death comes a day after Chad's president said his troops had killed Abou Zeid, the other main al-Qaida commander operating in northern Mali.
If both deaths are confirmed, it would mean that the international intervention in Mali had succeeded in decapitating two of the pillars of al-Qaida in the Sahara.
"Chad's armed forces in Mali have completely destroyed a base used by jihadists and narcotraffickers in the Adrar and Ifoghas mountains" of northern Mali, said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Zakaria Ngobongue in a televised statement on state-owned National Chadian Television. "The provisional toll is as follows: Several terrorists killed, including Moktar Belmoktar."
The French military moved into Mali on Jan. 11 to push back militants linked to Belmoktar and Abou Zeid and other extremist groups who had imposed harsh Islamic rule in the north of the vast country and who were seen as an international terrorist threat.
France is trying to rally other African troops to help in the military campaign, since Mali's military is weak and poor. Chadian troops have offered the most robust reinforcement.
In Paris, French military spokesman Col. Thierry Burkhard said that he had "no information" on the possibility that Belmoktar was dead. The Foreign Ministry refused to confirm or deny the report.
A spokesman for Chad's presidential palace did not immediately return a request for comment. In Kidal in northern Mali, an elected official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said that he did not believe that Belmoktar was dead and waved off the claim as an attempt by Chad to explain the loss of dozens of their troops to a grieving nation.
"These last few weeks, the Chadians have lost a significant number of soldiers in combat. (Claiming that they killed Belmoktar) is a way to give some importance to their intervention in Mali," said the official, who keeps in close contact with both French and Malian commanders in the field.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Baba Ahmed contributed from Bamako, Mali.