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IS claims responsibility for Niger attack which killed 71: SITE

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Niamey (AFP)

The Islamic State group has claimed responsibility for an attack on an army camp in Niger which left 71 military personnel dead, the SITE intelligence group said Thursday.

Hundreds of jihadists attacked the camp, near the border with Mali with shells and mortars on Tuesday, killing 71, injuring 122 and leaving "others missing," according to the defence ministry.

The attack in Inates in the western Tillaberi region was the deadliest on Niger's military since Islamist militant violence began to spill over from neighbouring Mali in 2015.

"The Islamic State's West Africa Province (ISWAP) claimed credit for the deadly raid on the Inates military base in Niger," SITE, which monitors jihadist media, said in a statement Thursday. It added that ISWAP claimed it had killed "over a hundred soldiers".

The attack was carried out by "heavily armed terrorists estimated to number many hundreds", the defence ministry said Wednesday, adding that "a substantial number of terrorists were neutralised".

The fighting lasted three hours, combining shelling and artillery fire with "the use of kamikaze vehicles by the enemy".

- Three days of mourning -

"Clashes took place with light, medium, and heavy weapons, which led to killing at least 100 elements and wounding dozens, and burning barracks inside the base," the ISWAP statement claimed, according to a translation by SITE.

"The mujahideen took control over it for a few hours, and captured weapons and ammunition, 16 vehicles, and multiple tanks as spoils," ISWAP said, referring to its fighters.

The attack dealt a blow to efforts to roll back jihadism in the Sahel.

Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou raced back in the night from a security and development conference in Egypt to chair a meeting of the National Security Council in Niamey. Three days of national mourning were declared.

- Jihadists becoming bolder -

Militant violence has spread across the vast Sahel region, especially in Burkina Faso and Niger, after it began when armed Islamists revolted in northern Mali in 2012.

In the last four months, more than 230 soldiers in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have lost their lives, in addition to 13 French troops killed in a helicopter collision while hunting jihadists in northern Mali.

That is in addition to the thousands of civilians who have died and more than a million who have been displaced since the jihadist revolt began in Mali.

Analysts note an escalation in the jihadists' operational tactics, which seem to have become bolder and more complex.

Instead of hit-and-run raids by a small group of Kalashnikov-armed guerrillas, the jihadists are now carrying out operations that involve hundreds of fighters, armed with mortars and suicide attack vehicles.

Ranged against them are the impoverished armies of Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, plus the 4,500-man French force in the Sahel and the 13,000-man UN force in Mali, MINUSMA.

- Macron postpones talks -

Tuesday's attack prompted French President Emmanuel Macron to postpone a meeting scheduled for next week in the southwestern French town of Pau, where he and five presidents from the Sahel were due to discuss security in the region.

The meeting will now take place early next year.

Niger is part of a five-nation anti-jihadist task force known as the G5, set up in 2014 with Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Chad.

Three Niger soldiers and 14 militants were also killed on Monday in an attack on another army post in Agando in the western Tahoua region, the defence ministry said.

Heavily armed "terrorists" in a dozen 4x4 vehicles led the attack early Monday morning on the military post in Tahoua, the ministry statement said.

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