French and Nigerien troops conducted operations near Niger’s border with Mali a day after an attack killed three US Army Special Forces soldiers, security sources said.
The attack, which also wounded two US soldiers and killed one Nigerien soldier, took place during a routine patrol in a south-western Niger where insurgents, including from al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are active, a US official told Reuters.
Nigerien, US and French troops were leading operations in the zone on Thursday, a Niger security source said, without elaborating. A Western security source also said French troops, part of a roughly 4,000-strong French force in the zone, were deployed alongside Nigerien forces.
“It’s not clear if the attackers knew Americans were present,” said the Western security source. “Initial information suggests there was a trap apparently designed to get them out of their vehicles and then they opened fire.”
The source said al Qaeda and a relatively new militant group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara were the main suspects, although no one had yet claimed responsibility.
Two additional Niger security sources said four military helicopters were dispatched to the area and reinforcements arrived on Thursday in the Tillaberi region where the attack took place.
A Nigerien regional official said five Niger soldiers were killed in the attack although a statement by US Africa Command said only one “partner nation member” died.
Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou condemned the attack. “Our country has just been the victim of a terrorist attack that claimed a large number of victims,” he said.
Islamist militants form part of a growing regional insurgency in the poor, sparsely populated deserts of West Africa’s Sahel. Jihadists have stepped up attacks on UN peacekeepers, Malian soldiers and civilian targets since being driven back in northern Mali by a French-led military intervention in 2013.
Malian militant groups expanded into neighbouring countries, including Niger, where attacks by armed groups led government to declare a state of emergency in the south-west.
The European Union pledged tens of millions of euros to a new regional force of five Sahelian countries – Niger, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mauritania – in a bid to contain Islamist militant groups and the United States also views the region as a growing priority.
Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Wednesday’s attack revealed how US training of Nigerien forces “accelerated and merged into ongoing military operations”.
The United States operates surveillance drones out of central Niger and said last year it was building a new $100 million base to boost efforts by its ally to combat jihadists and better protect its porous borders.
It also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance to a multi-national force battling Nigerian Boko Haram militants near Niger’s border with Nigeria.