PARIS, Feb. 22 (Xinhua) -- Yahia Abou el Hamman, one of Mali's senior Islamist militants, was killed by French forces during an operation in the northern region of Timbuktu, France's Ministry of the Armed Forces announced on Friday.
In a statement, the ministry said the operation was carried on Thursday afternoon after French troops had spotted "three vehicles in a suspicious state."
Backed by a helicopter and a Reaper drone, the French troops attacked the convoy and killed 11 terrorists, including Abou el Hamman, second in command of the umbrella group for al-Qaeda-linked insurgents in West Africa. Two of his main assistants were also killed in the attack.
"The neutralization of this terrorist leader, responsible for ... numerous attacks in countries in the Sahel region, is a major setback for the group," the ministry said.
In a separate press release, French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly hailed a "spectacular action" and "a very hard blow for terrorist groups operating in the Sahel."
"The death of a prominent leader helps dismantle networks and halt terrorism's dynamics in the region. Without a leader, no more direction or coordination: the combatants are clueless," Parly said.
"This is what (the ongoing anti-insurgent) Operation Barkhane has been doing for months in connection with our G5 Sahel partners, with the aim of creating conditions for the return of the rule of law, security and development in the region," she said.
France launched its military offensive in Mali in 2013 to crack down on Islamist fighters, who had seized control of Mali's northern region a year earlier.
With the support of African countries, Paris has deployed around 4,500 French troops in West Africa's Sahel region as part of Operation Barkhane to combat extremist insurgents and restore security in the area.