dpa/GNA — The death toll in an attack on villages in Niger’s restive border regions has risen to more than 100, the country’s prime minister said on Sunday.
After a visit to the villages, Prime Minister Birgi Rafini said no group has yet taken responsibility for the attack. Nigerien authorities are pursuing the attackers.
Gunmen are believed to have ridden into Niger’s Tilaberi province from neighbouring Mali on motorcycles and opened fire on the Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye villages, near the border with Mali.
At least 20 people were also wounded, Interior Minister Alkache Alhada said.
The attack is believed to be in retaliation to the earlier killing of two fighters by villagers, according to the interior minister. Young people from the two villages tried to form a self-defence group in the embattled area.
Alhada described the attackers as jihadists. The region, close to the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso, is home to armed fundamentalist groups who have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
The attack comes as Niger counts the results of a December 27 election. With no outright winner in the presidential election, ruling party candidate Mohamed Bazoum and opposition candidate Mahamane Ousmane will head into a run-off in February. Partial results also show the ruling party maintaining control of the legislature.
In a separate incident on Saturday, two French soldiers deployed to Mali to combat terrorism were killed when their vehicle hit an improvised bomb, the Elysee Palace said in a statement. A third soldier was also injured in the attack. The attack came less than a week after three French soldiers died in similar circumstances near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso.
France has a large military presence across West Africa, with around 5,100 soldiers making up its anti-insurgent operation Barkhane in the restive Sahel region. The region is also home to Minusma, a United Nations peacekeeping force of more than 13,200 troops.
The central Sahel region, a semi-arid to desert area stretching across Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Mauritania, has become increasingly destabilized by armed groups. The UN said more than 4,000 people were killed in violence across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger last year.
Calling for aid, the UN also said 1.6 million people have been displaced across the three countries. This instability also makes the region a thoroughfare for migrants to Europe.