The French army says it has killed one of the suspects in the murder of six French aid workers and their two Nigerien guides last year in Niger.
In a statement on Tuesday, the Ministry of the Armed Forces identified the person killed on Monday as Soumana Boura, a leading member of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) who headed a group of dozens of fighters in western Niger.
The six members of the NGO ACTED and their guides were murdered in August 2020 while they were visiting the Koure National Park, a wildlife haven 65km (40 miles) from Niger’s capital, Niamey.
The ministry’s statement said Boura had filmed the killing of the eight victims and overseen the publication of the footage.
General staff spokesman Colonel Pascal Ianni told the AFP news agency Boura was killed by a drone attack as he was riding his motorcycle.
France has thousands of soldiers deployed in the Sahel, an arid region south of the Sahara Desert plagued by a worsening conflict that involves multiple armed groups, military campaigns by national armies and international partners, as well as local militias.
The unrest began in 2012 when an uprising by Tuareg rebels in the north of Mali was swiftly hijacked by al-Qaeda-linked fighters.
The presence of thousands of foreign troops has failed to stem the violence, which has spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, with groups exploiting the poverty of marginalised communities and inflaming tensions between ethnic groups.
After the Koure attack, French President Emmanuel Macron had said the killings were “manifestly a terrorist attack” and threatened repercussions.
ISGS boss Adnan Abou Walid al-Sahraoui, who France believes ordered the execution of the aid workers, was killed in August by French soldiers. Eleven other people implicated in the murders have been arrested in Niger in recent months.
The area where the aid workers died, famous for its giraffes, is a popular destination for weekend leisure trips by Niamey residents, including foreigners.
The attackers cut the throat of a young woman in the group, shot the others dead, set fire to their jeep and fled.
The ministry’s statement described Monday’s operation, conducted in “close cooperation” with Nigerien authorities, as a “major blow” against ISGS. It said it helped “to fight against the expansion of ISGS and to stop it taking control of some parts of the three-border region” between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso.
After nine years of military presence in the Sahel, France has begun to reorganise and wind down its Barkhane force there. It has already left its northern Mali bases of Tessalit, Kidal and Timbuktu and is refocusing its presence on Gao, Menaka and Niamey.
French troops, currently 5,000 in the region, are to be drawn down by about half by 2023.