Seven troops and 11 suspected jihadists have died in clashes in a troubled western region of Niger ahead of elections this weekend, the defence ministry said Thursday.
An army patrol in the Taroun area in the Tillaberi region was ambushed early Monday morning by "heavily armed terrorists" travelling aboard motorbikes and other vehicles, it said in a statement, using a term that typically denotes jihadists.The country, the poorest in the world by the benchmark of the UN's Human Development Index, is to stage presidential and legislative elections on Sunday.
The statement said seven troops died and two others and a civilian were injured, while 11 attackers were killed, seven of them after the army launched a "spontaneous riposte".
"Motorbikes and weapons were seized. Followup operations are under way in the area," it said.
Tillaberi is located in the so-called tri-border area, a jihadist-plagued zone where the porous borders of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso converge.
Travel by motorbike has been banned there since January in a bid to prevent incursions by highly mobile jihadists riding on two wheels.
Niger is eyeing Sunday's two-round ballot as a historic moment, setting the country on course for its first peaceful handover between elected leaders since independence from France 60 years ago.President Mahamadou Issoufou, who was elected in 2011 after the country's last coup in 2010, is voluntarily stepping down after two terms.
A landlocked state located in the heart of the Sahel, Niger is being hammered in the southwest by jihadists from neighbouring Mali and in the southeast by jihadists from Nigeria, the cradle of the decade-old insurgency launched by Boko Haram.
Four thousand people in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger died last year from jihadist violence and ethnic bloodshed stirred by Islamists, according to the UN.
On December 12, 34 villagers were massacred in the southeastern region of Diffa on the eve of municipal and regional elections that had been repeatedly delayed because of poor security.