NIAMEY, Niger -- Insurgents killed 17 soldiers and wounded nearly 24 in the first major attack in half a year against the army in Niger, where Western powers fear a coup by the elite presidential guard last month is weakening a rare ally against jihadi violence in West Africa's Sahel region.
Niger was one of the last democratic countries in the region south of the Sahara and France and the U.S. have about 2,500 military personnel there who were training Niger’s forces. France also conducted joint operations with its former colony, but since the coup Paris and Washington have suspended military operations, giving the jihadis more breathing room.
A military detachment was attacked Tuesday afternoon as it moved between the villages of Boni and Torodi in the Tillaberi region, the Ministry of Defense said on state television Tuesday. The wounded were evacuated to the capital, Niamey.
It was the first major attack against Niger’s army in six months, a worrying sign of possible escalation, said Wassim Nasr, a journalist and senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a think tank.
“What we are witnessing today is both jihadi warring factions, the Islamic State group and (al-Qaida affiliate Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin), marking their territory because of the security void caused by the coup. This definitely should be seen in the context of the ongoing war between the two groups,” he said.
Neighboring countries are threatening military action against the coup, whose supporters said Wednesday that they would register volunteers to fight and help with other needs so the junta has a list in case it needs to call on people.
One organizer, Amsarou Bako, claimed that the junta is not involved in finding volunteers to defend the coup, although it is aware of the initiative.
It's not clear how real the possibility of regional conflict is.
Many Bazoum supporters have been silenced or gone into hiding, and rallies to support the president are quickly shut down by police. Several ministers and politicians from deposed President Mohamed Bazoum ’s regime have been detained since the coup, with human-rights groups unable to access to access them.
The West African regional bloc, ECOWAS, says it has activated a “standby force" to restore order in Niger.
Bako, one of the founders, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that a recruitment drive will launch Saturday in Niamey as well as in cities where invasion forces might enter, such as near the borders with Nigeria and Benin, two countries that have said they would participate in an intervention.
Regional tensions are deepening as the standoff between Niger and ECOWAS shows no signs of defusing, despite signals from both sides that they are open to resolving the crisis peacefully. Last week the junta said it was open to dialogue with ECOWAS after rebuffing the bloc's multiple efforts at talks, but shortly afterwards charged Bazoum with “high treason” and recalled its ambassador from neighboring Ivory Coast.
Analysts say the longer the coup drags on, the less likely an intervention will occur as the junta cements its grip on power, likely forcing the international community to accept the status quo.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Tuesday there was still room for diplomacy to return the country to constitutional rule and said the U.S. supported ECOWAS’ dialogue efforts, including its contingency plans.
The new U.S. ambassador to Niger, Kathleen FitzGibbon, is expected to arrive in Niamey at the end of the week, according to a U.S. official. The United States hasn’t had an ambassador in the country for nearly two years. Some Sahel experts say this has left Washington with less access to key players and information.
While regional and western countries scramble for how to respond, many Nigeriens are convinced they'll soon be invaded. The country of some 25 million people is one of the poorest in the world and residents are hoping the new regime will set the nation on a new path. In Niamey Wednesday, eager locals said they'd do what it took to defend the country.
“My children and I love these soldiers and I invite young people to join the army and develop our country and our villages," said Amadou Hawa, a Niamey resident who lives in a shanty town on the side of the road.
The details of Niger's volunteer force are still vague, but similar initiatives in neighboring countries have yielded mixed results. Volunteer fighters in Burkina Faso, recruited to help the army battle its jihadi insurgency, have been accused by rights groups and locals of committing atrocities against civilians.
Bako, one of the heads of the group organizing Nigerien volunteers, said Niger's situation is different.
“The (volunteers in Burkina Faso) are fighting the Burkinabe who took weapons against their own brothers ... The difference with us is our people will fight against an intrusion,” he said in English.
Associated Press reporters Dalatou Mamane in Niamey and Matthew Lee in Washington, D.C. contributed