On Thursday, French and Nigerien troops conducted operations near Niger’s border with Mali, the day after an attack that killed three US Army Special Forces members, security sources said.
The attack, which also wounded two US soldiers and killed at least one Nigerien soldier, took place during a routine patrol in a part of southwestern Niger where insurgents, including from al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), are active, a US official told Reuters.
Nigerien, US and French troops were leading operations in the zone on Thursday, a Niger security source said, without elaborating. A Western security source also said that French troops, part of a roughly 4,000-strong French force in the zone, were deployed alongside Nigerien forces.
“It’s not clear if the attackers knew the Americans were present,” said the Western security source. “Initial information suggests there was a trap that appeared designed to get them out of their vehicles and then they opened fire.”
The source said al Qaeda and a relatively new militant group called Islamic State in the Greater Sahara were the two main suspects, although no one had yet claimed responsibility.
Two additional Niger security sources said that four military helicopters had been dispatched to the area and that reinforcements arrived on Thursday morning in the Tillaberi region where the attack took place.
A Nigerien regional official said on Wednesday five Niger soldiers were killed in the attack although a statement by US Africa Command on Thursday said that only one “partner nation member” had died.
In a speech on Thursday, Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou condemned the attack. “Our country has just been the victim of a terrorist attack that claimed a large number of victims,” he said.
Islamist militants form part of a growing regional insurgency in the poor, sparsely populated deserts of West Africa’s Sahel. Jihadists have stepped up attacks on UN peacekeepers, Malian soldiers and civilian targets since being driven back in northern Mali by a French-led military intervention in 2013.
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