Twenty killed in attacks on villages in western Niger

Attacks took place in tri-border region in which militants have strengthened foothold

TOPSHOT - A Niger soldier looks at the graves of the soldiers killed before the arrival of the Leaders of the G5 Sahel nations in Niamey, on December 15, 2019. Leaders of the G5 Sahel nations paid homage at the graves of 71 Niger military personnel killed in a jihadist attack on December 10, 2019, ahead of a regional summit to coordinate a response to the growing unrest.
 / AFP / Boureima HAMA
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At least 20 people were killed in attacks by unidentified gunmen on several villages in the Tillaberi region of western Niger, the area's governor said on Sunday.

Ibrahim Tidjani Katchella told national radio Saturday’s attacks were carried out by bandits on motorcycles, but gave no further details.

Last January, Niger authorities restricted motorcycle traffic to crack down on terrorists operating in the region.

They also closed down a number of food markets they said were "supplying terrorists with fuel and cereals," Mr Katchella said.

Tillaberi is in the tri-border region of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali known as Liptako-Gourma, where militants linked to Al Qaeda and ISIS have strengthened their foothold, making larges areas of the arid Sahel area ungovernable.

France and several European and African countries have set up a task force of special operations troops to fight insurgent groups in the region alongside the Mali and Niger armies.

But the tri-border region has become a dangerous hotspot for attacks on French and allied forces.

Three UN troops were killed and four more wounded in Mali when their convoy hit a roadside bomb early on Sunday, officials said, in the latest violence to hit the war-torn West African state.

On Tuesday, a French soldier who was killed by extremists in Mali was identified. Forty-three French troops have been killed in the country since 2013.

Last week UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres warned that extremist groups in the Sahel were exploiting the coronavirus pandemic to increase attacks.

Mr Guterres called for better co-ordination among anti-extremist troops fighting an array of armed groups.