Flags fly at half-staff as the country reels from the latest attacks that killed 137 people in the southwest.
Niger has declared three days of national mourning in memory of the 137 people who were killed in a series of coordinated attacks on villages in the southwest, the bloodiest carnage the country has witnessed in years.
Flags flew at half-staff on Tuesday, while state media were filled with the reading of religious verses to commemorate the victims of Sunday’s raids in Intazayene, Bakorat and Wistane, near the country’s border with Mali.
The killings have rocked Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries at the heart of the violence-hit western portion of the Sahel region, and drawn international condemnation. Moussa Faki Mahamat, chairman of the African Union Commission, expressed outrage on Tuesday at the recurrence of assaults on civilians in the country and reiterated the “urgent need to strengthen the fight against terrorism in the Sahel to preserve human lives”.
Niger has suffered repeated border attacks by fighters linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS), part of the wider security crisis in the Sahel, the semi-arid strip of land that runs below the Sahara Desert.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Sunday’s attacks but the killings underscore the greatest challenge facing newly elected President Mohamed Bazoum, a former interior minister who was the preferred successor and right-hand man of the outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou.
Bazoum has pledged to fight insecurity and ordered army reinforcements to the southwestern region, while the government announced an investigation into the attacks.
Abou Oumarou, a retired colonel and former regional governor, said the repeated attacks raised questions about the military’s response.
“How is it that 200 people can move around on motorcycles and no one is aware?” he was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency. “These forces need to surround these zones so that we know when there is a massive movement.”
The death toll in Sunday’s violence surpassed that of two other big attacks in recent months.
On March 15, fighters killed 66 people in an attack on 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.
On January 2, 100 people were killed in attacks on two villages in the Mangaize district of the troubled Tillaberi region.
The growing death toll appears to be the result of armed groups inserting themselves into ethnic conflicts between rival farming and herding communities, Harouna Abarchi, a civil society activist who leads peace initiatives in the area, told Reuters.
The suspected attackers, largely drawn from the Fulani herding community, have targeted civilians in retaliation for the killings of Fulanis by self-defence militias formed by the farmers.
“It’s a fragile zone that has seen inter-communal conflicts in the past,” Abarchi said. “They are now going after civilians, which … could set the zone on fire.”