Insurgents killed 17 soldiers and wounded nearly 24 in the first major attack in half a year against the army in Niger, where Western powers fear a coup by the elite presidential guard last month is weakening a rare ally against jihadi violence in West Africa’s Sahel region.
Niger was one of the last democratic countries in the region south of the Sahara and France and the U.S. have about 2,500 military personnel there who were training Niger’s forces. France also conducted joint operations with its former colony, but since the coup Paris and Washington have suspended military operations, giving the jihadis more breathing room.
A military detachment was attacked Tuesday afternoon as it moved between the villages of Boni and Torodi in the Tillaberi region, the Ministry of Defense said on state television Tuesday. The wounded were evacuated to the capital, Niamey.
It was the first major attack against Niger’s army in six months, a worrying sign of possible escalation, said Wassim Nasr, a journalist and senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a think tank.
“What we are witnessing today is both jihadi warring factions, the Islamic State group and (al-Qaida affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin), marking their territory because of the security void caused by the coup. This definitely should be seen in the context of the ongoing war between the two groups,” he said.