71 soldiers dead in Niger after attack by suspected Islamic militants

About 100 Islamic militants ambushed an army camp in western Niger, a military spokesperson said late Wednesday, killing at least 71 soldiers in the deadliest attack on the West African country's forces in years.

Violence leads to postponement of summit to discuss France's military role in Sahel region

Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24. (Frank Franklin II/The Associated Press)

About 100 Islamic militants ambushed an army camp in western Niger, a military spokesperson said late Wednesday, killing at least 71 soldiers in the deadliest attack on the West African country's forces in years.

The large-scale attack comes amid a surge of assaults on army camps in the Sahel region, which have allowed jihadists to amass weapons and vehicles for their arsenal. Neighbouring Mali has seen such an increase in ambushes on its army that it has even closed some of its most remote and vulnerable army outposts.

Niger's army spokesperson, Col. Boukar Hassan, read the death toll announcement on state television Wednesday night and said a dozen others had been wounded after the ambush overnight.

Earlier in the evening, a tweet sent from President Mahamadou Issoufou's account announced that he was returning early from a trip to Egypt following the developments near Niger's border with Mali.

Global Affairs Canada said in a tweet Wednesday evening that it "strongly condemns" the attack.

"Our sincere condolences to the families of the victims and the government of Niger," the tweet read. "We are committed to the fight against #terrorism in the #Sahel and around the world, including through #OpNaberius."

The tweet references Operation Naberius, a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) program that trains soldiers in Niger.

Niger's president was among those invited to a summit that had been scheduled for next week in France to discuss the future of a French mission in the region, as well as the fight against so-called jihadist organizations. But Issoufou and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed on Thursday to propose a postponement.

Jihadists active in attack area

The attack took place overnight in a remote area of Niger where jihadists linked to the Islamic State have long been active.

The violence was 45 kilometres from Ouallam, where four U.S. service members died along with four Nigerien soldiers two years ago when their joint patrol came under fire in a massive ambush.

Islamic extremists have long carried out attacks across the vast desert region, abducting foreigners and targeting spots popular with expatriates. The French military mission and a regional force have failed to stem the violence. 

Some analysts have suggested that the deadly ambushes on army outposts are also aimed not only at stealing weapons but also at expanding the area of land under jihadists' control.

Given the growing insecurity, Mali's military has even closed some of its most isolated and vulnerable outposts as part of a reorganization.

Unrest over deadly ambushes has mounted, particularly in Mali, where soldiers' widows have held a number of public demonstrations calling on the government to do more. Some have even aimed their anger at France, the former colonial ruler in the region whose military intervened in 2013 to force jihadists from power in major towns across northern Mali.

France's operation in West and Central Africa is now its largest overseas military mission and involves 4,500 personnel. France intervened in Mali in 2013 after extremists seized control of major towns in the north and implemented a harsh version of Islamic law.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said he expects West African leaders to make it clear at next week's summit in France that they want and need France's military help despite the anti-French sentiment expressed by some protesters.

With files from Reuters