France announced Friday that its anti-jihadist force in Mali had killed the military commander of an Al-Qaeda-aligned group linked to attacks in the region, as well as around 30 militants in a separate operation.
The killing of Ba Ag Moussa is a major boost for the thousands-strong French Barkhane force stationed in the Sahel region of Africa for over half a decade in a grinding fight against multiple jihadist groups who are often also fighting each other.
Symbolically, the news was announced on the five-year anniversary of the November 13, 2015 attacks in Paris by jihadist gunmen and suicide bombers that were France's worst-ever peacetime atrocity.
French Defence Minister Florence Parly hailed the operation involving helicopters and ground troops that "neutralised" Ba Ag Moussa, described as the military commander of the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM).
Ag Moussa, alias "Bamoussa", is "believed responsible for several attacks against Malian and international forces," she said in a statement.
"He is considered one of the top military jihadists in Mali, in charge in particular of the training of new recruits."
The French army said that troops had tried to intercept the vehicle carrying the jihadist -- who was accompanied by four other individuals -- around 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the town of Menaka in eastern Mali.
"The heavily armed occupants then abruptly opened fire with machine guns and personal weapons," said Colonel Frederic Barbry, the spokesman for the French chief of staff.
He said the clash lasted 15 minutes and all five men in the car were killed including Ag Moussa.
- Significant success -
Separately, the French army said that mountain commandos supported by helicopters and jets had killed around 30 GSIM jihadists and captured or destroyed weapons and motorbikes after "several hours" of combat on Thursday evening.
The battle took place near Niaki, 180 kilometres (110 miles) east of central town Mopti, the armed forces said in a statement.
Last June, French forces in Mali killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the rival jihadist group to GSIM.
Observers have noted that the killing of Droukdel was a symbolic victory more than anything else as the prominent Algerian jihadist was no longer involved in ground operations and his death did not change the security situation.
The killing of Ag Moussa, a former soldier in the Mali army who turned to jihadism, could thus be even more significant.
According to the Counter-Extremism Project, he became the operational chief of GSIM in 2017 under its leader Iyad Ag Ghaly.
It has become one of the main jihadist forces in the Sahel along with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), which is also its sworn enemy.
Both are targets of the Barkhane force's operations.
Analysts say that Ag Moussa had been behind deadly attacks that targeted Malian forces but he also enjoyed popularity within his ethnic Tuareg community.
Niagale Bagayoko, the head of the African Security Sector Network expert group, cast France's killing of Ba Ag Moussa as a reaction to last month's liberation of some 200 prisoners -- some of them thought to be jihadists.
Mali's government swapped the prisoners for four hostages, including Frenchwoman Sophie Petronin, held by Islamist militants.
"This accelerated a reaction from a part of the French decision-making apparatus," she said, noting that France's policy against engaging jihadists in dialogue differs to Mali's.
- Uphill struggle -
Mali is struggling to contain an Islamist insurgency that erupted in 2012 and which has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives since then.
Despite the presence of thousands of French and UN troops, the conflict has engulfed the centre of the country and spread to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Despite a long deployment that has claimed the lives of more than 50 French troops, analysts say that the force cannot yet claim any lasting victory over jihadists in the region.
According to army sources, France is now hoping to cut back its military presence from the current number of 5,100 in the restive region to make room for a stronger European commitment.
Experts say one major vulnerability exploited by jihadists is the inability of many central governments in the region to secure and supply far-flung territories after a military victory.
To lighten the load, France is hoping for more military support from its European partners through the Takuba Task Force which assists Mali in its fight against jihadists.