At least three civilians have been killed in a coordinated attack on a camp housing thousands of Malian refugees in western Niger, according to the United Nations.
Some 50 fighters launched a “well-planned operation” against the Intikane refugee camp in the Tahoua region on Sunday afternoon, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Niamey told AFP news agency.
The three victims were the head of a refugee committee, the head of a refugee vigilance group and a representative of a Tahoua nomadic group, the UNHCR said on Monday.
The attackers also abducted a guard and sabotaged the camp’s water supply.
“The jihadists inflicted damage on the camp’s facilities, in particularly emptying the food supplies and destroying the system which supplies drinking water to the area within a radius of 40km (25 miles),” the UN agency said.
Alessandra Morelli, the UNHCR’s representative in Niger, denounced the attack.
“It is very serious, the terrorists have destroyed our space to live,” Morelli told AFP.
A security source told the news agency that before the attack, the fighters destroyed telephone relay antennas in the area.
Alongside the local population, the town of Intikane is hosting some 20,000 Malian refugees and 15,000 internally displaced Nigerien citizens – all of whom fled their villages due to violence perpetrated by armed groups.
Fighters with links to al-Qaeda and the ISIL (ISIS) group have increasingly mounted attacks across the Sahel in recent years despite the presence of thousands of regional and foreign troops in the region.
The violence has hit Mali and Burkina Faso the hardest, rendering large swaths of those countries ungovernable, but it has also spilled into Niger, which shares long and porous borders with its two neighbours.
Niger is home to nearly 60,000 Malian refugees who fled their country’s north after it fell under the control of al-Qaeda-linked groups in 2012, according to the UN. A French-led military intervention the following year pushed them out, but parts of Mali remain out of government control and awash with armed groups.
Niger has also endured unrest in its southeast from Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa Province, a breakaway group from Boko Haram.
In January, the UN envoy for West Africa told the UN Security Council that attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016, with more than 4,000 deaths reported in 2019.