Paris - French soldiers have killed about 40 Islamist fighters, including some senior commanders, in Mali in recent weeks, Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday.
"We have conducted operations over the past weeks," Le Drian said, adding that "about 40" fighters had been killed including "Ould Hamaha, a historic leader of Aqim," or Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Omar Ould Hamaha, known as "Red Beard", was a commander of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao) and Aqim, armed groups which occupied northern Mali for almost ten months in 2012.
Hamaha, nicknamed "Red Beard" because he regularly died his facial hair with henna, was implicated in the April 2012 abduction of Algerian diplomats in Gao, Mali's largest northern city, claimed by Mujao.
Mali was thrown into chaos in 2012 when Tuareg separatist rebels launched an offensive in the northern desert helped by Aqim and Mujao, after the country's president was toppled in a coup.
The Islamists took control of northern Mali, ruling it under a brutal version of Islamic law until former colonial ruler France sent in troops to flush them out in January 2013.