NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Jihadists attacked three villages in western Niger, near its border with Mali, killing at least 20 people, according to the Ministry of National Defense.

The gunmen staged the attacks Saturday in the Anzourou area, shooting at residents, robbing shops and taking food and cattle, the ministry said. They were on motorcycles and after the attacks withdrew toward Mali, it said.

The attacks come as COVID-19 spreads in the West African nation. Niger on Monday has recorded 821 cases, including 46 deaths and 624 recoveries.

Extremism has grown in West Africa’s Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert, with attacks increasing near the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, where many jihadists linked to al-Qaida or the Islamic State groups operate.