NIAMEY, Niger — At least 70 people and possibly more than 100 were killed by suspected militants in the West African nation of Niger on Saturday, according to local officials.
Armed men shot men and boys in a revenge attack on the villages of Tchoma Bangou and Zaroumadareye, sources in the Nigerien military said. The villages are in the southwestern region of Tillabéri, where civilians have increasingly come under attack in the past two years.
“They opened fire on everybody,” said Jahafar Koudize, a resident of Tchoma Bangou who managed to escape.
The attack, which came just a week after Niger’s presidential election, appears to be one of the country’s deadliest ever.
In December 2019 and January 2020, Nigerien security forces suffered huge losses in the same region, which is also where four American Special Forces soldiers were killed alongside five of their Nigerien colleagues in 2017.
Two military officers confirmed the latest attack, but asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak to reporters. No group has claimed responsibility for the killings, but the militants who have recently been making inroads into Tillabéri are with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, a franchise of the Islamic State.
The entire region has become steadily more dangerous for many of those living in it.
Since rebels and armed Islamists took control of cities in neighboring Mali in 2012, the terrorist threat has spread across the Sahel, a strip of land south of the Sahara. At the same time, military forces in several Sahelien countries, including Niger, have carried out grave abuses.
Niger’s efforts to contain the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have been unsuccessful, experts say, and security forces are increasingly pulling back from the region.
Mr. Koudize, the Tchoma Bangou resident, said that he had run away with his wife and five children but that the armed men had killed as many of the village’s boys and men as they could.
“We tried to defend ourselves as best we could — two of us were armed,” he said. “But when they killed those two, lots of us fled with our families.”
Mr. Koudize said that on Dec. 15, three armed men had come to try to collect money from the villagers — a “tax” that they impose on communities in the area. Speaking in Zarma, he used the word “izifuto” to describe the men, a term Nigeriens translate variously as terrorist, jihadist or bandit.
The villagers killed the men, Mr. Koudize said.
“That’s what pushed the jihadists to come in force to take revenge on the village,” he said.
Everyone in the area was fed up with the constant extortion, Mr. Koudize said.
“All the villagers in the area decided to fight the terrorists, because even if the authorities send soldiers to protect us, it’s just for a couple of days,” he said. “We can’t live as prisoners anymore.”
Transcripts of army radio messages seen by The New York Times suggested that the death toll from the attack was close to 50. But officials later raised that estimate.
Niger held the first round of its presidential election on Dec. 27, and the vote is expected to result in the country’s first peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
President Mahamadou Issoufou is stepping down after serving the two terms allowed under the Constitution. The governing party candidate, Mohamed Bazoum, will face a former president, Mahamane Ousmane, in a runoff to be held in February.