At least 70 soldiers were killed in an attack on a remote military camp in Niger near the border with Mali on Tuesday evening, the defence ministry confirmed, in the deadliest raid against the Nigerien military in living memory.
It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the assault. But Islamist militants with links to the Islamic State 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.
Tuesday’s attack struck a base in the western Niger town of Inates, the sources said, in the same area where the Islamic State group’s West African branch killed nearly 50 Nigerien soldiers in two attacks in May and July.
The defence ministry said 12 soldiers had also been wounded in Tuesday’s attack and that others remained missing.
President Mahamadou Issoufou’s office tweeted that Issoufou had cut short a visit to Egypt in order to return to Niger “following the tragedy that occurred in Inates”.
Security has deteriorated this year across the Sahel, a semi-arid strip of land beneath the Sahara, due to jihadist attacks and deadly 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 the following year to beat them back. But the jihadists have since regrouped and expanded their range of influence.
The rising body count this year has 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, particularly in the wake of a helicopter accident in Mali last month that killed 13 French troops, has invited five West African leaders to a meeting next week, where he plans to ask them to clarify whether they want French troops to remain in their countries.
Some of the countries, who participate in the French-backed G5 Sahel military force, have reacted coolly to what they see as an ultimatum from Paris.
Malian government spokesman Yaya Sangare said on Wednesday that President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita would attend next Monday’s meeting in southwestern France “under conditions” transmitted to France’s envoy to the Sahel.