French special forces and local troops raided an army base on Friday in northern Niger, ending a hostage seizure by Islamist fighters who had staged twin suicide bombings that killed at least 20 people.
The dawn raid came after Signatories in Blood, a jihadist group that claimed Thursday’s blasts, threatened to continue attacking Niger until the country withdraws its forces from neighboring Mali, where they are part of a French-led military campaign against Islamists.
A French defense ministry official said two “terrorists” had been killed in the raid on a building at the Agadez army base, where Islamist fighters had holed up after the bombings and were holding a group of trainee soldiers hostage.
An elected official in Agadez, the main city in Niger’s mostly desert north, gave a higher toll, saying three “terrorists” and three hostages had been killed, as well as a civilian caught in the crossfire.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian confirmed France had taken part in the raid.
“The situation has stabilized as we speak, especially in Agadez, where our special forces intervened to back the Niger forces,” he said on France’s BFMTV.
Signatories in Blood, founded by veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, first grabbed worldwide attention in January when it seized an Algerian gas plant in a brazen attack that left 38 hostages dead.
Belmokhtar had been reported dead last month by Chadian President Idriss Deby, who said the one-eyed extremist had been killed in fighting with Chadian troops in northeastern Mali.
However, the jihadist group’s spokesman el-Hassen Ould Khalil was quoted as saying by a Mauritanian news agency that “it was Belmokhtar himself who supervised the operational plans” in the Niger attacks.
The group also warned of “further operations” in Niger and threatened France and other countries involved in what it called the “Crusader campaign” in Mali.
Thursday’s attack at the Agadez army base left 18 soldiers and one civilian dead, officials said.
French nuclear group Areva said a near-simultaneous suicide bombing at its majority-owned uranium mine in northern Arlit had killed one and injured 14 employees.
Adding to the differing death toll figures in Agadez since Thursday’s violence, Nigerien Defence Minister Mahamadou Karidjo, speaking on public radio, said a total of 24 troops and eight Islamist assailants had died in the fighting.
Areva president and chief executive officer Luc Oursel traveled to Niger on Friday to express his support for the victims and confirm the company’s commitment to the country.
“My visit here is a testament to the strength of our engagement in Niger,” he said in a statement.
An Areva employee said questions were still being asked as to how the attack could have happened considering “the impressive military and security apparatus” that was in place.
Meanwhile, Niger’s public television network broadcast images of the destruction at the military base, including pieces of the suicide bombers’ flesh strewn across the ground, debris from a four-by-four they blew up and roofs torn from buildings at the base.
Agadez residents said they were still reeling from the attacks, the first of their kind in the impoverished former French colony.
Signatories in Blood was the second group to claim the attacks.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of three Islamist groups that seized northern Mali last year before French-led troops drove them out, also claimed responsibility on Thursday.
Signatories in Blood claimed the two groups had worked together and said Malian, Sudanese and Sahrawi or Western Saharan nationals had taken part.