NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Niger will hold three days of national mourning after attacks on two villages killed more than 100 civilians, the government said.
The government is strengthening security in the area of the attacks near the border with Mali and will provide support to those living there, it said in a statement after an emergency Cabinet meeting called by President Mahamadou Issoufou late Monday. An investigation will also be launched, it said.
The attacks on the western villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye took place on Saturday, the same day that Niger announced its presidential elections will go to a second round to be held on Feb. 21.
The villages in the insecure Tillaberi region were attacked after residents killed rebel fighters, local officials said.
The government said that in addition to supporting residents who lost food supplies in fires from the attacks, it will also plan a forum to prevent the risk of further inter-community conflicts.
North Tillaberi, the scene of multiple attacks, has been under a state of emergency since 2017.
The National Human Rights Commission has called for an independent investigation to locate those responsible for the “criminal and cowardly” attacks.
The attacks were reportedly perpetrated by a group of armed men aboard 100 motorcycles, said the rights group. There were 70 people killed in Tchiomabangou and 30 killed in Zaroumadareye, it said, adding that at least 25 people were also injured in the two villages and they are being treated in Ouallam.
The attacks are among the deadliest in Niger and come on the heels of several others, including one by the Islamic State West Africa Province in the Diffa region a few weeks ago in which dozens of people were killed.
While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has increasingly staged assaults in this region.
However, villages in this region have been extremely vulnerable to increasing violence for years, and it is not always provoked by jihadists.
“The Islamic State is growing stronger because of how the fight against it is being misunderstood,” said Hannah Rae Armstrong, senior consulting analyst on the Sahel for the International Crisis Group.
As the Islamic State began to rise in the northern Tillaberi and tri-border region, governments in the Sahel region launched counter-extremist attacks, with Western backing, she said. In some cases civilians were killed in the strikes, increasing tensions.
Since 2017, there has been a “toxic mix of fighting fueled by counter-terror offensives, ethnic militias, and inter- and intra-communal tensions that jihadist groups have been able to exploit to their advantage,” Armstrong said. The extremist groups have in some areas imposed taxes and demanded goods for protection.
Land disputes are common in this insecure region where the state now has little control, and killings are happening on a smaller scale there.
“Along the Mali-Niger border, the state presence is at best very limited. Previous attacks on Nigerien military posts there have shown how vulnerable security forces posted along the border are, making these sometimes appear more like targets than protectors,” Armstrong said.
A year ago, extremists staged mass attacks on Niger’s military in the Tillaberi region, killing more than 70 in December 2019 and more than 89 in January 2020. The area is also where four U.S. Special Forces soldiers were killed along with five Nigerien colleagues in October 2017.
Niger and neighboring Burkina Faso and Mali are battling the spread of deadly extremist violence which is displacing large numbers of people, despite the presence of thousands of regional and international troops.
Niger is pressed on all sides by extremist groups and must deal with instability spilling over from both Mali and Nigeria, which is exacerbated by local tensions.
Niger was largely spared mass atrocities by armed groups and state forces in comparison to Mali and Burkina Faso until 2020, according to research consultancy MENASTREAM which focuses on security and conflict in the Sahel and North Africa.
It said that mass-casualty attacks by ethnic-based armed groups are almost equal to the number of Jihadist strikes against civilians.
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal.