Dozens of people were killed in a militant attack on a military camp in western Niger near the Mali border on Tuesday, December 10, a security source said on Wednesday.
The attack in the town of Inates in the Tillaberi region, around 260 km (160 miles) north of the capital Niamey, is the deadliest on Niger’s military since the armed forces began fighting Islamist militants in 2015.
“The attack killed more than 60,” the source told AFP. “The terrorists bombarded the camp with shells and mortars. The explosions from ammunition and fuel were the cause of the heavy toll.”
Local media put the death toll at more than 70, with dozens reported missing.
In a later statement, Colonel Boubacar Hassan, a spokesperson for Niger’s Ministry of National Defense, said that 71 soldiers were killed, 12 were wounded and a number were missing, adding that “a substantial number of terrorists were neutralised.”
Two security sources told Reuters that 30 soldiers were unaccounted for.
Hassan said that the attack began at around 1500 and continued until 1815 and was carried out by “heavily armed terrorists estimated to number many hundreds” who used artillery fire and “kamikaze vehicles.”
Military reinforcements were rushed to Inates and the situation was “under control” on Wednesday, the defense ministry said. A search for the assailants was underway, although they had “fled beyond our borders.”
AFP earlier reported an unnamed security source as saying that dozens of assailants on motorcycles surrounded and attacked the camp at around 7:30 p.m. (1830 GMT).
Neither the defense ministry nor AFP’s source said which group was believed responsible for the deadly assault.
Update December 12 In a Thursday statement, Islamic State said fighters from it’s West Africa Province affiliate carried out the attack on the Nigerien army in Inates “near the artificial border between Niger and Mali.”
It claimed “clashes with light and medium and heavy weapons” led to the death of at least “100 elements” and the “wounding of tens.” ISWAP fighters took control of the base “for few hours,” burned buildings and captured weapons and ammunition along with 16 vehicles “and a number of tanks.”
On July 1, 18 Nigerien soldiers were killed when insurgents attacked an army camp near Inates, according to the defense ministry. Islamic State later said fighters from its West Africa Province affiliate carried out the raid.
One of the world’s poorest countries, Niger lies in the heart of the fragile Sahel region.
Niger faces insurgency on two fronts: the southeastern Diffa region near Lake Chad is increasingly frequently hit by Nigeria-based Islamic State West Africa Province insurgents, while militants based in Mali, including al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters, are active in the west of the country and the wider Sahel.
Attacks carried out by ISIS-affiliated militants in the Sahel have previously been attributed to Islamic State in the Greater Sahara but since May, Islamic State has attributed insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to ISWAP, rather than ISGS.
Many other armed groups are active in the Sahel region, and the majority of attacks are attributed to JNIM, which formed in March 2017 from a merger of several smaller groups including the Sahara branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar Dine and al-Mourabitoun. JNIM’s leadership has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
President Mahamadou Issoufou cut short a visit to Egypt where he was attending a conference on sustainable peace, security and development in Africa to return to Niger following the Inates attack, the Presidency tweeted.
Tuesday’s attack came ahead of a meeting scheduled for next week in the southwestern French town of Pau between France’s President Emmanuel Macron and the presidents of the G5 Sahel group of states – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – to discuss security and the presence of France-led forces in the region.
Late on Wednesday, the French presidency announced that the Pau summit had been postponed until early January due to the Inates attack.
In November, Macron said France was “confirming and consolidating its commitment” to the Sahel, noting that additional military resources would be forthcoming by early 2020, and that decisions would soon be announced on revamping the 4,500-strong G5 Sahel Joint Force (FCG5S).
In 2012 a Tuareg separatist uprising was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in Mali’s desert north. France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, and the MINUSMA U.N. stabilization mission was established.
But the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
Serval evolved in August 2014 into Operation Barkhane, and roughly 4,500 French troops are now deployed in the region. Barkhane has a growing international dimension, with European partners sending troops and equipment. Denmark is to send two helicopters and up to 70 troops and Estonia is to almost double the size of its Barkhane contingent in 2020. Chinook helicopters from the United Kingdom currently support the operation.
France also has plans for a new international special operations task force for the Sahel. In November, Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that France expected the new force – dubbed “Takuba” – to deploy in Mali by 2020. Around a dozen European states “have expressed an interest in taking part in this initiative,” a French Armed Forces spokesperson said. Estonia was the first partner to confirm a special operations forces deployment to Takuba. A defense ministry spokesperson told The Defense Post that special forces will deploy to Mali in the second half of 2020 and that force will ‘assist, advise and accompany’ the Malian Armed Forces.
With reporting from AFP. This post was updated on December 11