Did French and Chadian troops kill some of al Qaeda's most powerful men in Africa?
That question could soon be answered, thanks to DNA tests being used to identify Islamist fighters killed in recent battles in northern Mali, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told RTL radio, in Paris, on Thursday.
Asked if Moktar Belmoktar or Abdelhamid Abou Zeid -- two men who have been major forces in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM -- could be among the dead, Fabius said the French military was conducting the tests to find out.
"We know that there are many leaders among the hundreds of terrorists killed during this operation," the minister said. "Regarding details about the identity of three or two leaders cited, precise DNA verification has to be carried out."
The test results should be completed in the coming days, according to Fabius, despite challenges posed by the conditions of some of the slain fighters.
On Saturday, officials with Chad's military said its troops in Mali had killed Belmoktar, a veteran Islamist who claimed responsibility for a deadly attack earlier this year on an Algerian gas facility.
But others cautioned against definitively saying Belmoktar was dead, with a senior U.S. official saying Sunday, "We don't have enough evidence to support the claim."
Belmoktar led a group called Al-Mulathameen Brigade, which translates to The Brigade of the Masked Ones, and is associated with al Qaeda.
He had reportedly feuded with Zeid, a rival commander who is considered one of the most violent and radical figures in AQIM, having seized at least a dozen foreigners for ransom. More than most al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM is divided into often competing groups.
France's military has been active in recent months in Africa, working with Mali and other allies to combat al Qaeda and other Islamist elements.
The European nation's troops are continuing to "comb" through the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains and are keeping a strong presence in the northern Malian city of Gao where "important pockets of terrorist groups remain," Fabius said Thursday.
France will begin to reduce its troop levels in Mali next month in an effort to have West African forces, with the support of the United Nations, take over and maintain security in the country, according to the French foreign minister.