updated 6/20/2004 11:50:53 AM ET 2004-06-20T15:50:53

Algerian troops killed one of North Africa’s most-wanted terrorist leaders, who allied his group with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, the military said Sunday.

Nabil Sahraoui, one of his key right-hand men and a “good number” of his other lieutenants were killed in a military sweep, the army said in a radio broadcast.

The death of Sahraoui, head of the armed Salafist Group for Call and Combat, marked a major coup for Algerian government efforts to suppress Islamic militants. Newspapers said the military cornered them in the Kabylie region east of the capital, Algiers.

The daily Liberte reported that a forensic police team identified Sahraoui’s body after fighting Thurdsay night. The newspaper Le Soir said nearly 3,000 soldiers were involved in the military sweep in wooded mountains in the Bejaia region of Kabylie, some 160 miles east of Algiers.

The sweep began about two weeks ago after Islamic fighters killed about 10 soldiers.

The army radio broadcast said Abbi Abdelaziz, known as “Okacha the paratrooper” and seen as a potential successor to Sahraoui, was also among those killed.

Sahraoui took over leadership of the Salafist group, known by its French acronym GSPC, last year and declared its allegiance with al-Qaida in September.

The move raised concerns that the Salafists, whose decade-long aim has been to overthrow the Algerian government, could become a dangerous affiliate of al-Qaida and launch terrorist attacks beyond their North African territory.

An Algerian in his mid- to late-30s, Sahraoui had a reputation for ruthlessness, stemming partly from a campaign of killings he led against a now-defunct insurgent group, the Islamic Salvation Army, after it called a cease-fire with the Algerian government in 1997.

Sahraoui took over the Salafist group from longtime leader Hassan Hattab, who reportedly was viewed as too moderate by some group members. Under Hattab, the Salafists distrusted outsiders and kept al-Qaida at arms length, focusing instead on their domestic agenda of combating the government.

However, Algeria’s government also blames the group for kidnapping 32 European tourists in 2003.

The Salafists’ actual strength is unknown, although experts believe the group is small, with several hundred fighters. The State Department added the group to its list of foreign terrorist organizations in 2002.

The Salafist group is one of two movements fighting to install an Islamic state in Algeria. It was created in a 1998 split with the radical Armed Islamic Group.

Together, the two groups are blamed in the deaths of more than 120,000 Algerians since 1992. That year, the military government canceled legislative elections to keep an Islamic party from coming to power, sparking the insurgency.

Both groups have conducted bombings, rapes and massacres, but the Salafist group gained some public forgiveness by renouncing violence against civilians and mainly limiting its attacks to state targets, including police and soldiers.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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