NIAMEY (Reuters) - At least 18 soldiers in western Niger were killed and four others were missing after suspected Islamist militants blew up two cars and fired on a military camp, the army said on Tuesday.
The raid occurred on Monday afternoon near the town of Inates, close to the border with Mali, where militants are active, and in the same region where an ambush by Islamic State’s West African branch killed 28 soldiers in May.
Niger hosts the African Union summit from July 6-9 less than 200 km (125 miles) away in the capital Niamey. In the run-up, the European Union has been training Nigerian forces to respond to militant attacks.
An army statement said the attack began with the explosion of the two car bombs before additional assailants opened fire from motorcyles. The army’s “partners” then responded with air strikes to force them across the border into Mali.
Former colonial power France has more 4,000 troops in West Africa’s Sahel region, a semi-arid strip of land south of the Sahara, and often carries out air strikes on militants linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda.
A security source said that about a dozen vehicles were stolen in the raid. Jihadists have previously launched attacks using vehicles stolen in earlier raids.
Security has deteriorated across the Sahel in recent months due to both jihadist attacks and deadly ethnic reprisals involving rival farming and herding communities, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Militants loyal to Adnan Abu Waleed al-Sahrawi, the leader of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, operate along Mali’s border with Burkina Faso and Niger.
In 2017, they killed four members of U.S. special forces and four Nigerian soldiers in an ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo.
Reporting By Boureima Balima and Moussa Aksar in Niamey and David Lewis in Nairobi; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Mark Heinrich