Niger freed 59 youths suspected of being al Qaeda recruits on Friday and said a military blunder led to the death of a civilian during a gunfight with suspected al Qaeda members in the north of the country on Sept. 15.
Niger had said a soldier and three suspected al Qaeda members died and two soldiers were wounded in a clash in the Air mountain region in the north of Niger.
It said the group was trying to set up a camp in the area and the 59 youths, 19 to 20 years old, had been recruited to be trained by the north African wing of Al Qaeda (AQIM), Reuters reports.
The governor of Agadez, Garba Maikido, said on Friday on Niger national television that the soldiers had made contact with two different groups on Sept. 15. The first group included a car ferrying migrants trying to cross into a neighbouring country.
Angered after coming under fire from another group, the governor said the soldiers manhandled the driver of the car who was also carrying a gun, leading to the driver’s death.
He said the incident was being investigated.
The governor did not specify which country the migrants had intended to enter. Some African migrants are trying to make their way through Niger’s mountain passes towards Libya, hoping the crisis there will ease their flight to Europe.
“We have freed all 59 youths said to be AQIM recruits. In fact, they were just passengers who wanted to be smuggled into a neighbouring country,” Maikido said.
The poor, semi-arid west African nation has increased security patrols along its border with Libya on concerns that weapons looted from the Libyan armoury could make their way to a region already home to al Qaeda elements and bandits.