French air strikes kill wanted Islamist militant 'Red Beard' in Mali

BAMAKO (Reuters) - French air strikes in northern Mali have killed Islamist militant Oumar Ould Hamaha, a jihadist with a $3 million U.S. government bounty on his head, Malian military sources said on Friday.

Hamaha, known as ‘Red Beard’ because of his henna-dyed whiskers, became a leading figure in the Islamist coalition that seized control of northern Mali in April 2012 after drifting among armed Muslim groups in the Sahara over the last decade.

A French-led military offensive launched in January 2013 broke the grip of the al Qaeda-linked militants over northern Mali, but small pockets of Islamists have continued to operate in the vast desert region.

Two Malian military sources said Hamaha - a former member of al Qaeda’s north African wing (AQIM) who later became a leader of Mali’s Movement for Unity and Jihad in the Islamic Maghreb (MUJWA) - had been killed by French air strikes.

One of the sources said that Algerian militant Abou Walid Sahraoui, another former AQIM fighter who played a prominent role in MUJWA, had also been killed by strikes in the Tigharghar mountains in remote northeastern Mali.

Neither France’s defense ministry nor foreign ministry would confirm the death of Hamaha or Sahraoui.

Hamaha was a close associate of veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose al Mulathameen brigade carried out a joint attack with MUJWA on French nuclear company Areva’s uranium mine in northern Niger in May 2013.

According to the bounty offered under the U.S. State Department’s ‘Rewards for Justice’ program, Hamaha had participated in the kidnapping and ransom of several foreigners, including Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler from Niger in 2008.

During the Islamists’ 10-month rule over northern Mali, Hamaha became a spokesman for MUJWA movement that imposed strict sharia law in his hometown of Timbuktu. Militants there cut the hands off thieves and flogged women for dressing immodestly.

He strongly defended the Islamists’ destruction of the ancient caravan town’s historic mausoleums, sacred to followers of Sufi Islam and part of a UNESCO World Heritage site.

France is winding down its troop presence in Mali as a 12,000-strong U.N. mission slowly comes up to full strength.

Paris still has about 1,600 troops in Mali trying to mop up Islamist cells in the north. It has said it will redeploy its forces across the region to counter Islamist militancy.

Paris said last week its forces had killed 10 suspected Islamist fighters in the northern Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, after the group was spotted by a U.S.-made Reaper surveillance drone acquired by the French military last year.

Reporting by Tiemoko Diallo, additional reporting by John Irish and Marinne Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Tom Heneghan