Al-Qaeda and other militants in Libya on Tuesday released a list of names of those they say were killed in a US airstrike over the weekend that does not include the raid’s main target, al-Qaeda-linked commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
The al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Shariah released a list of seven names of fighters and residents it said were killed in the “crusader American strike” in the eastern town of Ajdabiya.
A second statement from an umbrella group for militias called the Shura Council of Ajdabiya and its Surroundings also did not include Belmokhtar among the dead.
Neither group directly denied Belmokhtar was killed.
US officials initially said they believed they hit their target, but later said assessments were still underway. A Libyan official said tests were needed to identify the dead, who numbered at least 17.
Libya’s internationally recognised government said on claimed on Monday that Al-Qaeda-linked extremist who allegedly masterminded the siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages died, has been killed in a US air strike.
“American jets conducted an operation which resulted in the deaths of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and a group of Libyans belonging to a terrorist organisation in eastern Libya,” said a statement the Tobruk-based government posted on Facebook.
The Pentagon said Belmokhtar had been the target of the strike but did not confirm he had been killed.
The Libyan statement said the operation took place “after consultation with the Libyan transitional government” based in the country’s east.
Hatem el-Ouraybi, spokesman for the recognised government, told AFP on Monday: “Coordination with the US will continue in fighting these terrorist groups.”
The strike came as part of “the international support that we have always asked for in order to fight terrorist groups in Libya,” Ouraybi said.
Libya’s Lana news agency cited an official from the internationally recognised government as saying the strikes had targeted a farm south of Ajdabiya, some 160 kilometres (100 miles) west of Benghazi, as Belmokhtar held a meeting with leaders from other extremist groups including Ansar al-Sharia, listed by the US as a “terrorist” organisation.
Islamist commander Belmokhtar, nicknamed variously as “The Uncatchable”, “Mr Marlboro” and “The One-Eyed”, was the leader of the north African al-Murabitoun militant group and a former chief of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Wanted in several countries, he was the alleged mastermind of the 2013 siege of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 hostages, mostly Westerners, were killed.
“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.”
The New York Times reported this was the first US air strike of any kind carried out in Libya since the fall of Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011.
$5 million bounty
Belmokhtar launched the Algerian gas plant attack days after France led an armed intervention into Mali in January 2013, which his group termed a “Crusader campaign”.
The four-day siege at the In Amenas plant left 38 hostages, all but one of whom were foreign, dead.
Twenty-nine militants were also killed.
Belmokhtar also claimed a double suicide bombing in Niger that killed 20 people in May 2013.
His death has been reported many times in the past.
Chad claimed that Belmokhtar was killed during fierce fighting in northern Mali in 2013. But France never confirmed his death and three months later the US placed a $5 million bounty on his head.
Born in 1972 in Algeria, he said in a rare 2007 interview that he was drawn away from home by his fascination with the exploits of the mujahedeen combating the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan, whom he joined in 1991 when he was barely 19.
It was in Afghanistan that he claims to have lost his eye when it was hit by shrapnel and where he had his first contact with al-Qaeda.