DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Dozens of armed men on motorcycles have attacked a town in western Niger that has been hosting 35,000 displaced people, killing three and cutting off the community's water supply, the U.N. refugee agency said Monday.
UNHCR said it was working to help provide water to the community following Sunday's attack so that people could continue washing their hands. Niger already has had 64 confirmed deaths from COVID-19, and while the virus has yet to reach the area of the attack, there are fears it may be only a matter of time.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the assault in Intikane, but Islamic extremists with links to the Islamic State group are known to be active in the region along the porous borders of Niger and Mali, often operating in dozens mounted on motorcycles.
Two of the victims were leaders within the local refugee communities, UNHCR said. The attackers also set fire to relief items and destroyed mobile phone towers, cutting off communications in the immediate area.
“The heinous and senseless act against vulnerable refugees and their hosts is heartbreaking and must be condemned in the strongest terms,” said Alessandra Morelli, UNHCR representative in Niger.
Intikane has been hosting some 20,000 refugees from Mali and 15,000 other people internally displaced from other parts of Niger.
Morelli lamented that hundreds of people were now fleeing yet again, a setback after “a careful balance had been built to allow solidarity with the local communities.”
Islamic extremists have increasingly established themselves in remote areas of Niger following the 2013 French-led military operation to oust them from power in neighboring Mali. Last year Niger's army suffered unprecedented fatal attacks on its forces, underscoring the tremendous challenges it faces even after receiving military training from the United States and former colonial ruler France.