Libya’s recognised government has claimed that the militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, charged by the US with leading the deadly attack on a gas plant in Algeria in 2013, was killed in an American air strike over the weekend.
An official said Belmokhtar was was killed in a raid on the eastern city of Ajdabiya.
The US confirmed that he was the target of a strike, but could not confirm whether he was killed in the raid. There have been reports in the past that Belmokhtar had been killed, but these have never been independenly confirmed.
“The Libyan government in the east of Libya confirms that the US fighter jets conducted air strikes last night in a mission which resulted in the death of the terrorist Belmokhtar,” a spokesman for the Libyan government said.
The US military said on Sunday that it was assessing the results of the raid.
“I can confirm that the target of last night’s counterterrorism strike in Libya was Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said in a statement.
“The strike was carried out by US aircraft. We are continuing to assess the results of the operation and will provide more details as appropriate.”
There were reports that hours after the air strike, a convoy of armed pickup trucks carrying wounded from the bombing arrived at Ajdabiya’s hospital, running into a firefight with regular army forces.
Several militants were killed and wounded, and local sources say they retreated into the desert.
An Islamist with ties to Libyan militants told Associated Press that the bombings missed Belmokhtar and instead killed four members of a Libyan extremist group the US has linked to the 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
The latest bombing came as US officials were calling for a cessation of hostilities in Libya’s civil war, as Washington urges Libya’s rival governments to agree a UN-crafted peace plan by 17 June, just before the onset of Ramadan.
The air strike came on the same day that Islamic State forces were pushed out of most of Derna, one of two Libyan towns they hold, by rival Islamists backed by government air strikes.
The US raid is the first American air strike since the 2011 Nato-led air campaign against Muammar Gaddafi during Libya’s Arab Spring revolution.
But US forces have conducted more recent operations in Libya. Two years ago Delta commandos captured Anas al Libi, blamed for the bombing of US embassies in Africa, from his home in Tripoli. Last June another commando raid seized Ahmed Al Khattala, currently on trial in the US on charges of killing US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi in 2012.
Since the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 and Libya’s slide into chaos, the North African state has seen the rise of Islamist militant groups taking advantage of the turmoil. Some are allied with al-Qaida’s leadership, others have declared allegiance to Islamic State, which has been gaining ground.
Belmokhtar has been reported killed several times, including in 2013 when he was believed to have been killed in Mali. He has earned a reputation as one of the most elusive jihadi leaders in the region.
If confirmed, the death of Belmokhtar – who was blamed for orchestrating the attack on Algeria’s In Amenas gasfield that killed 38 hostages, and nicknamed “Uncatchable” by French forces – would be a major strike against al-Qaida allied operations in the region.
Belmokhtar, a one-eyed veteran of Afghanistan and Algeria’s own 1990s Islamist war, was long a major figure in Saharan smuggling, hostage-taking, arms trafficking and insurgencies, including the conflict in Mali.
Libyan military sources said an air strike had been carried on Saturday in Ajdabiya city near Benghazi, killing seven members of the Ansar al-Sharia militant group.