NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Suspected Islamic militants ambushed a military post in western Niger and killed at least 70 soldiers, a presidential adviser said late Wednesday, marking the deadliest attack on the West African country’s forces in recent memory.
The bloodshed comes just days ahead of a summit in France where French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to meet with West African leaders to discuss the French military’s role in the Sahel region.
A tweet sent from President Mahamadou Issoufou’s account late Wednesday said that he was returning early from an overseas trip in Egypt following the developments near Niger’s border with Mali.
Niger’s military has not released a death toll, but an adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists confirmed the provisional toll.
The large attack took place overnight in a remote area of Niger where jihadists linked to the Islamic State have long been active, the adviser said.
The violence was 30 miles (45 kilometers) from Ouallam, where four U.S. service members died along with four Nigerien soldiers two years ago when their joint patrol came under fire in a massive ambush.
Islamic extremists have long carried out attacks across the vast desert region, abducting foreigners and targeting spots popular with expatriates. A regional military force and a French military mission have failed to stem the violence.
A surge of attacks in Mali and Niger this year has targeted military outposts, where militants have often made off with weapons and vehicles to add to their arsenal. Some analysts have suggested that the deadly ambushes are also aimed at expanding the area of land under jihadists’ control.
Given the growing insecurity, Mali’s military has even closed some of its most isolated and vulnerable outposts as part of a reorganization.
Unrest over deadly ambushes has mounted particularly in Mali, where soldiers’ widows have held a number of public demonstrations calling on the government to do more. Some have even aimed their anger at France, the former colonial ruler in the region whose military intervened in 2013 to force jihadists from power in major towns across northern Mali.
France’s operation in West and Central Africa is now its largest overseas military mission and involves 4,500 personnel. France intervened in Mali in 2013 after extremists seized control of major towns in the north and implemented a harsh version of Islamic law.
Niger’s president was among those invited to the summit next week in France to discuss the future of the French mission. Macron has said he expects the West African leaders to make it clear they want and need France’s military presence despite the anti-French sentiment expressed by some protesters.
Associated Press writers Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this report.