NIAMEY, Jan 11 (Reuters) – The death toll from Thursday’s attack by suspected jihadists on a Niger army base has risen to at least 89, four security sources said, surpassing a raid last month that killed 71 soldiers as the deadliest against Nigerien forces in years.
The government said on Thursday that 25 soldiers were killed while successfully repelling the attack in the western town of Chinagodrar by assailants aboard motorcycles and other vehicles.
But four security sources said that at least 89 members of Niger’s security forces killed in the attack were buried on Saturday in the capital, Niamey.
One of the sources said the actual death toll could be higher because a number of dead soldiers were buried immediately on Thursday in Chinagodrar.
Niger’s government spokesman and defence minister did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Saturday.
The Chinagodrar attack, coming a month after the raid in nearby Inates by fighters from an Islamic State affiliate that killed 71 soldiers, highlights the deteriorating security situation near Niger’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso.
Attacks have risen four-fold over the past year in Niger, killing nearly 400 people, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a non-profit research organisation, despite efforts by international forces to stop militants linked to Islamic State and al Qaeda.
France’s 4,500-strong Operation Barkhane said it had scrambled fighter jets on Thursday to scare off the attackers.
Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, Niger Defence Minister Issoufou Katambe said on Friday that the army would launch a new offensive against jihadists.
West Africa’s Sahel region, a semi-arid belt beneath the Sahara, has been in crisis since 2012, when ethnic Tuareg rebels and loosely aligned jihadists seized the northern two-thirds of Mali, forcing France to intervene to temporarily beat them back.
Reporting by Moussa Aksar and David Lewis; Additional
reporting by Boureima Balima and Aaron Ross; Writing by Aaron
Ross; Editing by Giles Elgood