PARIS (Reuters) - French and Niger forces killed three gunmen in a convoy carrying drugs and heavy weapons in Niger close to the Libyan border, the French army said on Monday, as its troops step up efforts to stop militants crisscrossing the Sahel-Sahara region.
Paris, which has led efforts to push back Islamist fighters in the region since intervening in its former colony Mali in 2013, has deployed thousands of troops across West Africa to form a counter-terrorism force and prevent trafficking in the region.
The army said in a statement that on May 14 two pick-up trucks attempted to force their way through a checkpoint set up by about 200 French and Niger troops.
“The occupants of the vehicles attempted to drive through and responded to warning shots by violently opening fire,” it said. “Amid the fighting, three people in the convoy were killed and three others were captured and handed to the Niger army.”
It said 1.5 tonnes of drugs and weapons, including submachine guns, were recovered as well as communications equipment.
France has set up a base at Madama in northern Niger to monitor the Salvador Pass trafficking route that leads from southern Libya to northern Mali.
More than 3,000 French troops are now operating out of Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad — countries straddling the vast arid Sahel band — with the aim of stamping out Islamist fighters across the region.
The French operation, dubbed Barkhane after the name of a kind of sand dune formed by desert winds, has set up its headquarters in the Chadian capital N’Djamena, but also placed an outpost in northern Chad about 200 km from the Libyan border.
French officials have said for several months they are concerned by events in Libya, warning that the political void in the north is creating favourable conditions for al Qaeda-linked fighters to regroup in the barren south of the country.
They have also said that failure to conclude a peace deal between the Malian government and separatist rebels is helping traffickers restore their previous networks in the region.
Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Alison Williams