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Wily one-eyed Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed an assault on a luxury Mali hotel, shot to global notoriety with a spectacular assault on an Algerian gas field two years ago, but had long been known as "The Uncatchable".

US bombers as recently as June were sent out to target the elusive 43-year-old Algerian born and bred in the country's desert hinterland, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said last weekend.

Washington has pledged a reward of $5 million (4.7 million euros) on his head, and of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region straddling the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar's photo that features on the wall of the French army commander's office at Gao in northern Mali.

"It reminds me that he exists and wants to do me harm," Colonel Luc Laine told AFP.

Behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south of his homeland, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed, "Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the backbone of all jihadists," a source in Mali's intelligence services told AFP on Monday.

In May, he reaffirmed that his group, Al-Murabitoun, remained loyal to Al-Qaeda, denying allegiance paid to the Islamic State by another of the movement's leaders.

He was born in 1972 in the ancient desert city of Ghardaia, 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of the Algerian capital, noted for its dates and rugs and fabrics.


But in a rare 2007 interview, he said 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 years old.

It was in Afghanistan that he claims to have lost his eye when it was hit by shrapnel and where he had his first contacts with Al-Qaeda, whose ranks he joined, eventually rising to a senior position.

Now nicknamed Lawar (The One-Eyed), Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in 1993, a year after the government sparked civil war by cancelling an election the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win.

He joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent campaign of civilian massacres in its battle against the government, sometimes wiping out entire villages in the process.

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