France considers reducing troop numbers as fighting worsens.
Seven members of Niger’s electoral commission (CENI) have been killed during the country’s presidential election runoff when their vehicle hit a mine and exploded in the troubled western region of Tillaberi.
The country regularly suffers attacks by armed groups and had increased to protect Sunday’s poll, in which the governing party candidate, Mohamed Bazoum, is facing former President Mahamane Ousmane.
A vehicle belonging to CENI and carrying election workers to their polling stations hit a mine in the rural commune of Dargol in the southwest, said Harouna Mounkaila, vice president of the commission’s local branch.
“They were leaving to drop off the ballot boxes and the members of the polling station,” Moukaila told Reuters news agency, adding that three other workers were seriously wounded.
Tillaberi is in the tri-border area of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali where armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have strengthened their foothold, launching frequent attacks and making swathes of the western portion of the Sahel ungovernable.
The region’s government confirmed the death toll following Sunday’s explosion.
“I had the news around midday [11:00 GMT] that there were seven killed when the vehicle blew up on a mine,” Tidjani Ibrahim Katiella told AFP news agency.
“They are the heads of polling stations and their secretaries” recruited by the commission, Katiella added.
Thousands of soldiers were deployed nationwide for the vote, set to usher in a peaceful handover between elected presidents, a first since Niger’s independence from France in 1960.
Outgoing President Mahamadou Issoufou’s decision to voluntarily step down after two five-year terms was welcomed in a region where many leaders have tried to cling to power.
“I’m proud to be the first democratically elected president in our history to be able to pass the baton to another democratically elected president,” Issoufou said as he voted at city hall in the capital, Niamey.
Sixty-one-year-old Bazoum, Issoufou’s right-hand man and anointed heir, is widely seen as the favourite after securing 39.3 percent of ballots in the first round of voting on December 27. Ousmane, 71 – who became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1993, only to be toppled in a coup three years later – had garnered 16.9 percent.
Polling stations were scheduled to close at 7pm (18:00 GMT).