ALGIERS, Algeria, Jan. 3 (UPI) -- The Algerian army is conducting its biggest offensive in years against al-Qaida forces in the north across the Kabylie mountains and reportedly disrupted a major plot to use cellphone-detonated explosives in a bombing campaign.
There were reports that some top leaders of the group, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, have been killed but these haven't been confirmed.
The military has maintained a security blackout on the operation since it was launched Dec. 9 with some 5,000 troops, including Special Forces and helicopter gunships.
However, Algerian newspapers have given the land and air campaign a lot of coverage in recent days.
"It's not a limited campaign," a senior official was quoted as saying. "It will continue for some time, possibly until late January."
Algiers newspapers report that 2,000 more troops are scheduled to reinforce the operation in which a large group of militants are besieged by the military in AQIM's northern stronghold.
The offensive was triggered by the capture of two militants in early December.
They told interrogators that a major gathering of AQIM chieftains was planned at Sidi Ali Bounab, 70 miles east of Algiers, presided over by AQIM's overall commander, Abdelmalek Droukdel.
The military had announced no results from the extensive operations but newspapers have reported that more than 20 militants have been killed.
Droukdel, aka Abu Mousaab Abdelwadoud, has maintained the group's northern headquarters there for some time.
There have been unconfirmed reports that Droukdel, 40, was among the militants killed in the offensive. He has been reported slain several times before but and always turned alive although he appears to have been badly wounded in 2009.
The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank that monitors global terrorism, quoted Algerian security sources as saying the meeting was intended to organize a force to be sent to the Sahara Desert to block a planned coup by AQIM's southern command.
The aim was to depose Droukdel and set up an independent emirate in the Sahara and the adjacent semi-arid Sahel region, Jamestown reported.
Droukdel took over the militant group known as the Islamic Group for Preaching and Combat in 2004 and led it into an alliance with al-Qaida in 2006.
He has been unchallenged until recently. AQIM's southern "emir," or leader, Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, Droukdel's former lieutenant, has emerged as a rival and has garnered tens of millions of dollars in ransom for European -- and Arab -- hostages his fighters have seized.
Western counter-terrorism specialists have viewed Abu Zeid as a possible successor to Droukdel, who is ideologically close to the core al-Qaida leadership holed up in northern Pakistan.
His main base is believed to be in the hill country along the Algeria-Mali border deep in Sahel, where U.S. intelligence considers him a serious threat in the mineral-rich region of northwest Africa.
AQIM is the only al-Qaida affiliate operating in Africa, with the possible exception of al-Sahaab in Somalia. It has been expanding its operations across the region. It's viewed in some quarters as a threat to Europe.
Algeria is leading the fight against the Algerian-led jihadists. France declared war on AQIM in July after Abu Zeid beheaded a 78-year-old French hostage, Michael Germaneau.
That happened after seven of Abu Zeid's men were killed during an abortive attempt by French Special Forces and Mauritanian troops to rescue the ailing Germaneau.
Overall, Abu Zeid has been blamed for the abduction of more than 20 Europeans since 2008.
They include five French citizens kidnapped at the French uranium mining operation at Arlit in Niger. They remain in captivity, reportedly in neighboring Mali.
The Americans are sufficiently concerned about the threat Abu Zeid poses that they supplied electronic intelligence on him to their French counterparts.
The Algerian offensive initially targeted suspected hideouts in forests and scrubland near Sidi Ali Bounab, southwest of the town of Tizi-Ouzou, 65 miles east of Algiers.
On Dec. 10, the military jammed three mobile phone networks for six days, the first time such a shutdown had been ordered in the fight against the Islamists.
The objective apparently was to ensure that the militants couldn't communicate or electronically detonate the bombs they were reported to be planning for Tizi Ouzou and the nearby towns of Boumerdes and Bouira.