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UN mission: Mali jihadist spokesman Hamaha killed

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — The red-bearded jihadist who once warned that "every French national is a target" after France launched a military operation in northern Mali to oust the Islamic extremists from power has been killed by French forces, U.N. and Malian officials said Friday.

Omar Ould Hamaha became the public face of Islamic militancy in northern Mali after al-Qaida and other extremists seized control of the region in 2012. He frequently spoke with international journalists by telephone to convey the group's threats and detail the harsh punishments meted out during their rule.

According to an internal U.N. report obtained by The Associated Press, Hamaha was killed on March 8 when French forces had a shoot-out with men in a pick-up truck about 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Timbuktu. Two other militants also died in the fight, according to the report from the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.

Two Malian security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists, confirmed Hamaha's death. "There is no doubt about the death of Omar Ould Hamaha," said a Malian army colonel.

Hamaha's death will have a serious impact on the al-Qaida-linked groups in North Africa especially the Mourabitoune group he formed with one-eyed terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, who claimed responsibility to the 2013 attack on an Algerian natural gas facility that left 39 foreign hostages dead.

"His death is a major blow to the armed Islamist movements in general and especially to Belmoktar," said Djallil Lounnas, an expert on militant groups in North Africa. "He was one of the few people from the local northern Mali population to be a key position ... this made him even more important in order to recruit people."

In the early days of the French-led military operation in January 2013, Hamaha egged on the French, calling them cowards and saying that their attack has only heightened the rebels' desire for jihad. "Our jihadists are not a bunch of sheep waiting to be slaughtered inside a closed pen," Hamaha told The Associated Press in January 2013. "Listen closely to me. Our elements are constantly on the move. What they hit is a bunch of cement. France is going to reap the worst consequences possible from this. Now no French person can feel safe anywhere in the world. Every French national is a target."

Hamaha also was related through marriage to Belmoktar and was known as his main lieutenant. After the jihadists took over Mali's northern towns of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, it was Hamaha who explained why they had amputated the hand of an accused thief and why they destroyed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Hamaha said they had "divine orders" to destroy any grave that is more than 20 centimeters (8 inches) tall because anything taller encourages people to orient their prayer toward the deceased rather than toward God.

Associated Press writers Paul Schemm in Rabat, Morocco and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.

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