A soldier stands guard at a camp of refugees fleeing Boko Haram fighters. Picture: REUTERS/ LUC GNAGO
A soldier stands guard at a camp of refugees fleeing Boko Haram fighters. Picture: REUTERS/ LUC GNAGO

Niamey/Nairobi — 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 (IS's) West African sect killed 28 soldiers in May.

Niger hosts the African Union summit from July 6-9 less than 200km away in the capital, Niamey. In the run-up, the EU has been training Nigerien 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 than 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 IS 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 IS in the Greater Sahara, operate along Mali's border with Burkina Faso and Niger.

In 2017, they killed four members of US special forces and four Nigerien soldiers in an ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo. 

Reuters