Seven local employees of a French drilling firm and a government official were killed in southeast Niger Thursday when suspected Boko Haram gunmen stormed the compound where they were sleeping.
The attack shattered months of relative calm in the Diffa region near the Lake Chad basin, a strategic area where the borders of four countries converge.
The victims, all Nigerien, were shot dead at a site in Toumour, a village near the border with Nigeria, where they had been drilling two deep-water wells to improve conditions for displaced people at a local refugee camp.
Seven of them were employees of Foraco, a French firm which specialises in drilling for mining and water projects.
The eighth victim was an official from Niger’s ministry of hydraulics.
“A group of terrorists attacked the building where a team of Foraco drillers and technicians were resting in the village of Toumour,” a company statement said.
“The assailants opened fire on the sleeping personnel and killed eight people.”
Another five people were wounded, two seriously, it said. The injured were transported to hospital in Diffa, capital of the region of the same name which flanks Nigeria and Chad.
The attackers also made off with two of the company’s pickup trucks.
‘No specific threats’
“There were about 15 employees there… under the protection of about 15 soldiers who had just set off to patrol the area at the time of the attack,” said Thierry Merle, head of Foraco’s Europe and Middle East division.
“We know that Boko Haram is active in the region but for now we’ve had no claim of responsibility, neither official nor unofficial,” he told AFP.
“We’ve been operating in Niger for 20 years, and at this site for a month,” Merle said, indicating there had been no specific threats.
“We have never faced a problem like this before.”
But a local official in Diffa blamed the attack on Boko Haram militants and one local resident said the gunmen had “looted many shops” and carried off foodstuffs “in a Foraco vehicle”.
A funeral was held on Thursday for seven of the victims in the presence of the governor of Diffa, Bakabe Mahamadou.
The governor said that one of the Boko Haram fighters had also been killed.
“The attackers took two Foraco vehicles, one of which was found torched by these savages on the road,” he added.
France’s foreign ministry “strongly condemned” the attack, expressing support for the wounded and victims’ families.
“There are no French citizens among the victims according to the information we have at this stage,” it added.
Overshadowed by violence
The Diffa region first came under attack by Boko Haram in February 2015, although the violence eased off this year after a bloody start.
In mid-January, seven Niger soldiers were killed and 17 wounded in another attack in Toumour. Two months later, suspected jihadists fired on civilians at the local marketplace, killing at least five people.
UN figures show that between 2015 and 2017, suspected Boko Haram jihadists staged 244 raids in the region, killing 582 civilians.
Boko Haram extremists based in neighbouring Nigeria first took the conflict across the border into Niger in 2015, with numerous raids around Diffa.
As well as Niger, the Islamist violence has also spilled into Chad and Cameroon, with all three countries joining Nigeria in a military effort to crush the insurgency.
Boko Haram first emerged in 2009 and its nine-year insurgency has killed more than 27,000 people in northeast Nigeria, forcing another 1.8 million people from their homes.
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