Islamist militants killed 71 soldiers in an attack on a remote military camp in Niger near the Mali border, an army spokesman said, in the deadliest raid against the Nigerien military in living memory.
Jihadists with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda mount increasingly lethal attacks across West Africa’s Sahel despite the commitment of thousands of regional and foreign troops to counter them.
The violence hit Mali and Burkina Faso the hardest, rendering large swathes of those countries ungovernable and spilled into Niger, which shares long and porous borders with its two neighbours.
Several hundred militants attacked a base in the western Niger town Inates over a period of three hours on Tuesday, army spokesman Colonel Boubacar Hassan said on state television.
It was the same area where Islamic State’s West African branch killed 50 Nigerien soldiers in two attacks in May and July.
“The combat was of a rare violence, combining artillery shells and kamikaze vehicles,” he said.
He added 12 soldiers were wounded and an unspecified number missing, while a “significant number” of militants were killed.
Two security sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 30 soldiers were missing.
President Mahamadou Issoufou arrived in Niger on Wednesday 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 Niger River north of Niamey.
Apart from raids on the army, jihadists looking to assert control targeted civilians, killing two village chiefs, according to local sources.
Since July, hundreds of people fled to Niamey or other nearby towns leaving
cattle and houses untended and unguarded.
TENSIONS WITH FRANCE
Security deteriorated this year across the Sahel amid jihadist attacks and ethnic reprisals between rival farming and herding communities.
The region has been in crisis since 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely-aligned jihadists seized the northern two-thirds of Mali, forcing France to intervene to beat them back.
The jihadists regrouped and expanded their range of influence.
The rising body count inflamed popular anger against regional governments and former colonial master France, which has 4 500 troops deployed across the Sahel.
French President Emmanuel Macron, frustrated by mounting anti-French sentiment, invited five West African leaders to a meeting next week. He plans to ask them to clarify whether they want French troops to remain.
Domestic pressure has risen after a helicopter accident in Mali last month killed 13 French troops.
“We have no interest in this region other than for our own security,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in an interview with Le Monde.
“If this doesn’t get resolved through accords and a clarification of commitments, we have to ask questions and rethink our military positioning,” he said. He added withdrawal of French troops from the region was not on the table.
Some countries in the French-backed G5 Sahel military force reacted coolly to what they see as an ultimatum from Paris.
Malian government spokesman Yaya Sangare said President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita would attend next Monday’s meeting in France “under conditions” transmitted to France’s envoy to the Sahel.
A Paris-based West African diplomat said the five countries took Macron’s summons badly.
“I think he should treat his elders with more respect,” the diplomat said.