Armed men on Monday launched a car bomb attack on a Nigerien army base in western Niger near the border with Mali, the defense ministry said on Tuesday.
Gunmen stormed the Nigerien military outpost near the town of Inates, about 260 km (160 miles) north of Niamey, and killed at least 16 soldiers on Monday, July 1, Reuters reported, citing the brother of one of the troops and two security sources.
“The attack began with the detonation of two suicide vehicles at the entrance to the camp, followed by gunfire from terrorists who arrived on motorbike,” the military’s statement said.
Eighteen soldiers were killed and four are missing, the defense ministry said.
“The counter-attack, with air support from our partners, enabled the enemy to be routed beyond our borders,” it said.
“Sweeping-up operations are continuing.”
French Mirage fighter jets and American reconnaissance aircraft responded to the attack, RFI reported on Monday.
U.S. forces provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support but did not launch any airstrikes, and no American forces were in the vicinity, a U.S. Africa Command spokesperson told The Defense Post on Tuesday.
U.S. Africa Command also assisted Niger with contracted evacuation support, the spokesperson said.
Several “terrorists” were killed, a truck was destroyed by air strikes and two suicide vehicles were destroyed, the defense ministry said.
Update, July 3: Islamic State said its said fighters from its West Africa Province affiliate carried out the raid against “apostate Niger,” claiming in a statement to have killed and wounded dozens of Nigerien military personnel and seizing various weapons and ammunition.
The volatile region is a major base where Nigerien soldiers are trained to serve in the United Nations MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali.
Earlier this month, 18 members of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara were killed in a joint operation by U.S., French and Nigerien troops near Tongo Tongo to the east.
The Tongo Tongo area, around 20 km (12 miles) from the Mali border, gained international notoriety in October 2017, after four American and five Nigerien soldiers were killed when their convoy was ambushed, an attack later claimed by ISGS.
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 Mali-based militants, some linked to al-Qaeda, are active in the west of the country and the wider Sahel region.
Attacks carried out by ISIS-affiliated militants in the Sahel have previously been attributed to ISGS but since May, Islamic State has attributed insurgent activities in the Mali-Burkina Faso-Niger tri-border area to ISWAP, rather than ISGS.
In a June 15 ISIS propaganda video, ISWAP militants purportedly in Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso were shown reaffirming their pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Security is being significantly tightened in Niamey ahead of an African Union summit on July 7 and 8, with high-profile deployment of the military and police and checkpoints on the highways into the city, but attacks continue near the capital.
On June 3, Niger’s defense ministry said said five people including “two known terrorists” were arrested near the Niamey international airport two days earlier, and on Tuesday, two police officers were killed when gunmen attacked a police station between Ouallam and Niamey.
The recent unrest in the Sahel began in Mali in 2012 with Tuareg separatist uprising which was exploited by Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda who took key cities in the desert north.
France began its Operation Serval military intervention in its former colony early the next year, driving the jihadists from the towns, but the militant groups morphed into more nimble formations operating in rural areas, and the insurgency has gradually spread to central and southern regions of Mali, and across the borders into neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.
The French mission evolved in August 2014 into the current 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane, which has a mandate for counter-terrorism operations across the Sahel, and other nations including the United Kingdom and Estonia have deployed troops and aircraft to the mission. Troops deployed to Barkhane work alongside other international operations, including the roughly 14,000-strong MINUSMA mission in Mali, and the regional G5 Sahel joint counter-terrorism force that aims to train and deploy up to 5,000 personnel from the five members – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
France maintains a military base near Niamey airport and another at Madama in the north.
The United States has a big base for drones in the northern city of Agadez and Niger recently gave the Americans permission to arm their drones.
With reporting from AFP