Hundreds of militants have killed 71 soldiers in an attack on a remote military camp in Niger near the border with Mali, an army spokesman says, in the deadliest raid against the Nigerien military in living memory.
Militants with links to the Daesh Takfiri group and al-Qaeda have mounted increasingly lethal attacks across West Africa’s Sahel region this year despite the commitment of thousands of regional and foreign troops to counter them.
The violence has hit Mali and Burkina Faso the hardest, rendering large swathes of those countries ungovernable, but it has also spilled into Niger, which shares long and porous borders with its two neighbors.
Several hundred militants attacked a base in the western Niger town of Inates over a period of three hours on Tuesday evening, army spokesman Colonel Boubacar Hassan said on state television on Wednesday.
It was in the same area where Daesh’s West African branch killed nearly 50 Nigerien soldiers in two attacks in May and July.
“The combat (was) of a rare violence, combining artillery shells and the use of kamikaze vehicles by the enemy,” he said.
He added that another 12 soldiers were wounded and an unspecified number of others were missing, while a “significant number” of militants were also killed.
Two security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 30 soldiers were still missing.
President Mahamadou Issoufou arrived in Niger on Wednesday evening after cutting short a visit to Egypt, his office said in a tweet.
The attack comes at the end of a year of intense violence in Inates, a cattle herding community near the banks of the Niger River 200 km (130 miles) north of the capital Niamey.
Apart from raids on the army, extremists looking to assert control have targeted civilians too, killing two village chiefs this year, according to two local sources.
Since July, hundreds of people have fled the area for the capital Niamey or other nearby towns, the sources said, leaving their cattle and houses untended and unguarded.