Eighteen civilians have been killed in two suspected terrorist attacks in the west of Niger near the border with Mali, the government said on Tuesday.
The attack happened on Sunday when unidentified “armed bandits” on motorbikes attacked a lorry travelling between villages in the Tillaberi region, the Nigerien government added. The area is in a flashpoint zone where the frontiers of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali converge in the Sahel.
Niger's interior ministry said on Sunday that “the provisional toll of the attack is 18 people killed, eight injured” with five of those injured admitted to hospital in serious condition.
The lorry was then set on fire, the ministry added. A search is currently under way for the attackers.
A local official, who gave a far lower toll earlier in the day, said that the vehicle hit by the attackers had been returning from Niger's capital Niamey on Sunday afternoon carrying passengers from four local villages as well as their cargo.
Witnesses reported that the attackers “killed nearly all of the men on board before taking their supplies and burning the truck”, the official said.
Armed groups carried out numerous attacks on civilians in the region in 2021, including a November 2 massacre of at least 69 members of a self-defence militia.
In October 2021, motorcycle-riding assailants killed 10 people in a mosque near Tizigorou during evening prayers.
Last Wednesday, an improvised explosive device killed five Nigerien soldiers in the south-west of the country, the defence ministry said.
The blast occurred in the Gotheye district of Tillaberi.
Western Niger has for years faced attacks from insurgents, despite the efforts of international forces deployed to the wider Sahel region to tackle terrorist groups.
Niger, which the UN's Human Development Index lists as the world's poorest country, has to contend with threats posed by extremists, including those from the local ISIS affiliate.
Neighbouring Mali has been struggling to contain a brutal insurgency that first emerged in 2012, before spreading to Burkina Faso and Niger.
Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and two million people have been displaced by the Sahel-wide conflict, of which Mali remains the epicentre.
France announced a military pullout from Mali last week due to a dispute with the country's military, which seized power in 2020 and has since defied international calls to swiftly restore civil rule.