At least 28 soldiers in Niger killed in ambush
Attackers not yet known, though ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates plague region
The death toll from an ambush on troops from Niger that were near the Mali border has risen to 28, an army spokesman said on Thursday, a major setback for military operations trying to restore order in a region plagued by jihadist groups and allied criminal gangs.
The ambush on Tuesday occurred near the town of Tongo Tongo, where fighters from an ISIS affiliate killed four U.S. special forces and four Nigerien soldiers in an ambush in October 2017.
A government spokesperson did not identify the perpetrators of the new attack, which is one of the deadliest against the military in Niger's west in recent years.
Jihadists, including affiliates of al-Qaeda and ISIS, have stepped up attacks on military and civilian targets across West Africa's Sahel region this year, particularly along the porous borders between Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso.
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria claimed responsibility on Thursday for the attack, the group's Amaq news agency said, without providing evidence.
Niger also faces a threat in its southeast from Boko Haram and a splinter group affiliated with Islamic State, which are both based in Nigeria but frequently strike in neighbouring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Security has deteriorated in the Sahel, an arid expanse of scrubland just south of the Sahara desert, over the past decade, with extremist attacks occurring frequently. Both fighters and people seeking better lives in Europe move easily across the region's long, porous borders.
'We need support'
In a rare video released late last month, ISIS group leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi congratulated "brothers" in Burkina Faso, Mali and other countries for pledging allegiance.
On Tuesday, unidentified assailants killed four Catholics and destroyed a statue of the Virgin Mary in northern Burkina Faso, the third deadly attack against Christians in the West African country in the span of two weeks.
The lawlessness has also included the kidnapping of foreigners.
Édith Blais, a 34-year-old Quebec resident, went missing along with her Italian companion from southwestern Burkina Faso in December.
Another Canadian, Kirk Woodman of Halifax, was kidnapped and found shot death in the same country.
Two French special forces officers were killed last week during an operation in Burkina Faso, which helped free four free foreign hostages,
Mali's foreign minister, Tiebile Drame, speaking to reporters Tuesday after after a meeting of EU and Sahel country government ministers, said "we need support. We need to speed up procedures. We need international mobilization in a concrete way."
The Sahel region also includes conflict-torn Libya to the east and Mauritania further west.
The region is a transit hub and path for migrants trying to reach Europe, and the EU has earmarked around 8 billion euros ($12 billion Cdn) in development support for Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mauritania for 2014-2020. Last year the EU and other donors raised more than 400 million euros to fund a regional counterterrorism force.
"This is a situation that's getting worse and we must do something about it," Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said.
Canada has contributed to a UN mission in Mali, but has thus far balked at extending its military commitment past October.
With files from the Associated Press and CBC News