ALGIERS, Algeria — Algerian army helicopters killed a top al Qaeda leader and four associates as they sped through the southern Algerian desert, a local official said Thursday.
The two four-wheel-drive vehicles were hit as they were carrying Khalil Ould Addah, known as Abu Bassen, the number three leader in the terror network's North African branch, said the official from the southern regional capital of Tamanrasset.
"The trail of the two all-terrain vehicles was being followed closely by the army that wanted to take them alive but at the last minute the decision was made to use helicopters to bomb their vehicles," he told the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Arabic language daily al-Khabar said the attack happened Wednesday, adding that the militants had come from northern Mali and were heading to a meeting of top al Qaeda in North Africa officials.
Al Qaeda's North African branch emerged out of the radical Islamist groups trying to overthrow the Algerian government during the 1990s and to this day, its top leaders are believed to be hiding out in the mountainous Kabyle region in the north, near the capital.
The group, however, has been much more successful establishing itself in the largely ungoverned desert wastes south of Algeria's borders and established its own state in northern Mali with the help of Tuareg rebels in 2012.
French forces backed by African allies retook northern Mali earlier this year and scattered al Qaeda throughout the region. Some are still believed to be hiding out in northern Mali while others have taken refuge in Niger and southern Libya where the central government holds little power.
In January, al Qaeda-linked groups attacked an Algerian natural gas facility at Ain Amenas, not far from where Ould Addah was killed.