By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - Suspected Islamist militants have killed scores of people in simultaneous attacks on two villages in Niger, near the border with Mali, security officials said.
Interior Minister Alkache Alhada initially said Saturday’s massacres killed 59 people in Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye.
But the death toll later rose to at least 79, with security sources saying some 49 villagers were murdered in Tchombangou. Another 30 people were killed by the gunmen in Zaroumdareye, according to security officials.
About 20 people were injured in the violence, several sources said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the violence came amid ongoing attacks in Niger by Islamist militants linked to the al-Qaida and Islamic State groups.
The area where Saturday’s attacks took place, Mangaize, is located in Tillaberi, a vast and unstable region where the borders of Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso converge.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
The Tillaberi region has been under a state of emergency since 2017, and attacks by jihadist groups are common throughout Niger.
Last month seven Nigerien soldiers were killed in an ambush by suspected Muslim militants in Tillaberi. Also, in December, the Islamist group Boko Haram massacred up to 34 people in Niger’s southeast Diffa region in the south-east, several reports said.
The latest violence reported Saturday comes amid national elections in Niger, as President Mahamadou Issoufou steps down after two five-year terms.
The massacres happened while officials announced results for the first round of Niger's presidential vote that put ruling party candidate and former government minister Mohamed Bazoum in the clear lead. A runoff is set for next month.
Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, shaken by numerous coups d'état, never experienced a democratic succession between two presidents since independence in 1960.
Islamist fighters seeking more control and a strict interpretation of Islamic law in the region have hit nearby Mali and Burkina Faso the hardest. But it has also spilled into western Niger.
Hours before news of the village massacres, France said on Saturday that two of its soldiers were killed in Mali. Hours earlier, a group with links to al-Qaeda said it was behind the killing of three French troops in a separate attack in Mali last Monday.
France has been leading a coalition of West African and European allies against Islamist militants in the West African region. Despite their presence, at least 4,000 people across the three nations died in violence linked to armed groups in 2019 alone, according to the United Nations.
Minority Christians are caught in the middle of the troubles, suggested Christian aid group Open Doors in a recent assessment. “In border regions under Islamist control, Christians have been hindered from celebrating Christian weddings. Public worship and meetings of Christians have to be conducted with caution in such areas, due to the threat of violence from militant groups,” it said.
Christians and others in countries such as Niger and Mali fear more Islamist attacks and ethnic violence. The nations also face human and drug trafficking and banditry.
Numbering 62,200, Christians are a tiny minority in Niger, comprising roughly 0.3 percent of the total population of 23.2 million people, Open Doors explained.