Attackers on motorbikes have raided several villages in southwestern Niger, killing at least 137 people in the bloodiest violence to hit the country in years, the government said.
The gunmen on Sunday attacked the villages of Intazayene, Bakorat and Wistane, located near the border with Mali, shooting “at everything which moved”, according to a local official.
On Monday, the government said the attacks had left 137 people dead. Local officials have previously given a death toll of at least 60.
“In treating civilian populations systematically as targets now, these armed bandits have gone a step further into horror and brutality,” government spokesman Zakaria Abdourahamane said in a statement read on public television.
The coordinated raids underscore the greatest challenge facing Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s new president whose election victory in a runoff vote last month was confirmed on Sunday by the country’s top court.
Niger, the world’s poorest nation according to the United Nations’ development rankings for 189 countries, is struggling with armed campaigns that have spilled over from Mali and Nigeria, killing hundreds of people and displacing nearly half a million others.
The three villages attacked on Sunday are located in the arid Tahoua region, abutting the Tillaberi border area, a hotspot of the conflict plaguing the western portion of the Sahel for much of the past 10 and is also fuelled by fighters linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS).
On March 15, fighters killed 66 people in the Tillaberi region, attacking a bus carrying shoppers from the market town of Banibangou, and then raided the village of Darey-Daye, killing inhabitants and torching grain stores. The same day, an attack claimed by ISIL in the so-called “tri-border area”, where the frontiers of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali converge, killed 33 Malian soldiers.
“After the Banibangou massacre, yesterday the terrorists, in the same barbaric way, struck the peaceful civilian populations of Intazayene and Bakorat,” Bazoum said in a Twitter post on Monday, offering “heartfelt condolences to the victims’ relatives”.
Bazoum, elected on February 21, is a former interior minister who was the preferred successor and right-hand man of the outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou.
He has pledged to fight insecurity and ordered army reinforcements to the Tillaberi region after the bloodletting of March 15.
Niger is part of a France-backed alliance of countries in the Sahel region known as the G5. A contingent of 1,200 soldiers from the Chadian army, considered the region’s toughest, has been deployed under the G5 banner.
On January 2, 100 people were killed in attacks on two villages in the Mangaize district of Tillaberi. The massacre, one of the worst in Niger’s history, occurred between two rounds of the country’s presidential election.
A year earlier, on January 9, 2020, the Niger army lost 89 men in an attack on a military camp in Chinegodar.
In December 2019, 71 Nigerien soldiers were killed in an attack in Inates in the Tillaberi region, and the following month 89 were killed in an assault on their base at Chinedogar.