A search was under way in western Niger for soldiers missing since an ambush by armed men the day before left several of their colleagues injured, security sources said on Wednesday, May 15.
#Niger: Initial reports on violent clashes between suspected #ISGS militants and Nigerien forces near Tongo Tongo, Tillaberi Région following an ambush by ISGS. There is genuine fear the number of casualties among security forces appear to be high (+20). #Sahel
— Rida Lyammouri (@rmaghrebi) May 14, 2019
A military patrol was ambushed Tuesday afternoon near the village of Tongo Tongo in the western Tillaberi region near the border with Mali. One of the military vehicles had set off an explosive device.
Several troops were injured and evacuated to the capital Niamey, a security source told AFP.
By Wednesday, “several soldiers were still not responding to calls,” said another, adding that “search operations are ongoing.”
Citing local and security sources, ActuNiger reported that a patrol of 52 Niger soldiers encountered a group of heavily-armed men at Baley Beri, near Tongo Tongo, leading to heavy fighting, which lasted more than two hours. According to the report, 22 soldiers in three vehicles returned to their base at Ouallam, around 85 km south of Tongo Tongo.
Update May 15 An unnamed security source later told AFP that a “provisional toll” indicated that 17 Niger soldiers were killed, and 11 were missing, describing the incident as a “terrorist attack.”
Government spokesperson Abdourahamane Zakaria confirmed that toll to Reuters, but did not identify the perpetrators.
Late on Wednesday, a source told AFP the bodies of the missing soldiers had been found.
“We have confirmation that the dead bodies of the eleven missing soldiers have been found, bringing the death toll to 28,” the source said.
#Niger: Army detachment ambushed in the area of Tongo Tongo-Bella Beri, #Tillabery, 22 soldiers (several wounded) rejoined base in Ouallam, remaining 30 including unit commander missing in action pic.twitter.com/0BdzebWcV3
— MENASTREAM (@MENASTREAM) May 15, 2019
In October 2017, four American and five Nigerien soldiers were killed when their convoy was ambushed at Tongo Tongo, an attack later claimed by Islamic State in the Greater Sahara.
Last December, around 15 ‘terrorists’ were killed in French airstrikes followed by two days of clearance operations on the ground near Tongo Tongo.
On Monday, Niger authorities said they had foiled a “terrorist attack” at the high-security Koutoukale prison. One soldier injured in the attack later died. The Niger air force intervened, forcing the attackers to flee towards the Mali border, ActuNiger reported.
The prison was previously attacked in October 2016 and ISGS claimed responsibility.
Niger faces insurgency on two fronts: the southeastern Diffa region near Lake Chad is increasingly frequently hit by Nigeria-based militants, primarily the Islamic State West Africa Province faction of Boko Haram. Mali-based militants, some linked to al-Qaeda, are active in the west of the country and the wider Sahel region.
With reporting from AFP