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Al-Qaeda's 'Emir of Sahara' Makhloufi dies in Mali

image captionAnsar Dine is said to have links to al-Qaeda

An al-Qaeda-linked commander known as the Emir of the Sahara, Nabil Makhloufi, has died in a car crash in Mali, an Islamist spokesman has said.

Makhlouf was a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), accused of abducting and killing foreigners across the Sahara Desert.

A spokesman for Mali's Ansar Dine Islamist group said the crash happened near the northern city of Gao.

Militant Islamists captured northern Mali in April.

The West African regional body, the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), says it plans to send a 3,000-strong force to defeat the Islamists, amid growing concern that they could destabilise the entire region.

However, the UN Security Coucil has not yet approved the mission amid fears its goals are not clear and the troops could get bogged down in a drawn-out conflict.

Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Abou Mohamed said that Makhloufi, an Algerian known by the alias Nabil Alqama, was killed in the accident near Gao on Sunday, AP news agency reports.

An Algerian diplomat confirmed his death, Reuters news agency reports.

Makhloufi was the deputy of Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, one of Aqim's leading field commanders in the Sahara.

Aqim has killed several foreigners, including Frenchman Michel Germaneau and Briton Edwin Dyer after they were abducted in Mali in 2010.

Last year, a German was killed and three other foreigners kidnapped by Aqim in Timbuktu, a popular tourist destination.

Ansar Dine, said to have links to al-Qaeda, has destroyed ancient Muslim shrines in the World Heritage site of Timbuktu, leading to widespread international condemnation.

The group claims the shrines, revered by followers of the moderate Sufi sect, promote idolatry and are therefore un-Islamic.

The International Criminal Court has launched a preliminary investigation into whether Ansar Dine's actions constitute a war crime.