Ten troops have been killed on the border between Niger and Nigeria in a joint operation by the two countries against “bandits”, Nigerien Defence Minister Kalla Moutari said on Monday.
“Five Nigerien and five Nigerian” troops and 11 enemy fighters were killed in the operation, launched against gangs in the Maradi region on the weekend, Moutari told AFP news agency.
“The Nigerian defence and security forces are identifying the bodies of the bandits,” Moutari also said, according to a TV report from Maradi, where he went to attend the funeral of the dead Nigerien troops.
Niger is one of several countries in the impoverished Sahel region to be hit by violence by armed groups.
Officials often call the attackers “bandits” but a security source said the joint operation targeted criminal gangs that plague the Niger-Nigeria border, holing up in dense forests.
The fighting “began on Saturday in the middle of the morning,” the source said, adding that several troops from both countries were also wounded.
The groups are blamed for kidnapping, theft and cattle rustling.
The troubled region lies on part of Niger’s southern-central border abutting the northwestern Nigerian state of Zamfara.
In August, Niger sent reinforcements to the area, and in September began a three-week operation with Nigeria that led to the death of at least 30 “bandits”, the interior minister, Bazoum Mohamed, had said on October 16.
The authorities were now “fully in control” of the region “and are in the middle of mopping-up operations,” he had maintained.
Preparing an offensive
Nigerian security and civilian sources also said on Monday that troops are preparing to launch an offensive in a bid to retake a strategic town captured by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.
Fighters from ISIL-affiliated Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) took control of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad on Thursday after over-running military bases.
The group established full control over the fishing town on Friday after sacking a naval base, forcing personnel to flee across the lake to a village on the Chadian side of the border.
Dozens of military trucks and armoured vehicles from Borno state capital Maiduguri arrived late on Sunday at the garrison town of Monguno, 135km away, in readiness for the offensive, two military officers and armed group sources told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Nigerian military has insisted the armed group has already been pushed out of Baga, but fleeing residents and security sources refuted the claim.
Boko Haram was said to be roaming around the town and killing civilian armed groups.
Boko Haram’s nine-year revolt has killed 27,000 people and displaced two million others, sparking a dire humanitarian crisis in the region.
The fighting has also spilled into Nigeria’s neighbours Chad, Niger and Cameroon.