Armed forces of Niger and France search for gunmen who killed seven aid workers

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Frédéric de Saint-Sernin, vice-CEO of ACTED, Joseph Breham, lawyer of ACTED, Frédéric Roussel, co-founder and director of development of ACTED, and Marie-Pierre Caley, co-founder and CEO of ACTED, attend a conference press release at the NGO Headquarters in Paris, France, August 10, 2020.

BENOIT TESSIER / Reuters

The armed forces of Niger and France have been deployed to pursue the gunmen who killed seven aid workers, mostly French citizens, and a leading guide in a giraffe park in Niger considered one of the safest places in the vast country of West Africa.

The group had made a day of sightseeing on Sunday when they were attacked just before noon, according to one of the aid groups they worked for, the Parisian NGO ACTED. An ambulance sent by the French army stationed in Niger found the bodies later in the day in their burnt down vehicle in the Koure giraffe reserve, the group said.

The victims were six French and one Nigerien working for ACTED and IMPACT Initiatives in Geneva. The other victim was their Nigerien guide, who was the president of the park guides. Four of the French aid workers were women, two men, and all were between 25 and 50 years old, according to ACTED.

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Nigerien Interior Minister Alkache Alhada said on Monday that the area around Koure had been cordoned off by the Nigerien army and French soldiers from Operation Barkhane.

“We have deployed the army and the intelligence services to identify and neutralize the assassins,” he said. “We also deployed air cover to reinforce the ground troops.”

French prosecutors said in a statement Monday that they had opened an investigation for “murders in connection with a terrorist enterprise”.

The governor of the Tillabéri region where the attack took place said he was surprised by this “cowardly attack and murder” against foreign tourists.

“This area has always been a peaceful and safe place, we really want to know what happened,” Governor Tidjani Katiella said.

Hundreds of people annually visit the protected Koure National Park, which contains among the only West African giraffes remaining in the world, which live among dense vegetation and tall trees about 70 kilometers to the south. -is the capital.

The NGOs condemned “in the strongest terms the senseless and barbaric murder of our colleagues and their guide”.

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“Our colleagues have worked to support the Nigerien people facing poverty, driven by values ​​of humanity and solidarity,” said the NGOs.

The Association of Giraffe Guides of Koure also issued a statement condemning the death of the president of their association, Kadri Abdou.

“We are deeply saddened and think of the victims and their families to whom we offer our most sincere condolences and in particular to the family of Kadri, our friend. May he rest in peace, ”the statement said.

Nigerien President Issoufou Mahamadou also condemned the killings in a message on Twitter.

“I condemn the cowardly and barbaric terrorist attack perpetrated this Sunday in the peaceful town of Koure,” he wrote, sending his condolences to the families of the victims and to the French president, adding that “France’s commitment to our sides in the fight against terrorism is unwavering. “

One of the largest French NGOs, ACTED has been present in Niger since 2010 and provides assistance to displaced people and local populations who are particularly vulnerable due to conflicts in the region, lack of food and droughts.

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Partner of ACTED, IMPACT Initiatives was deployed for the first time in Niger in 2012. It carries out mapping programs and other projects in camps hosting displaced populations.

In a phone call on Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron and the Nigerien president pledged to clarify the circumstances of the deadly attack by “all means”, the French presidency said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian condemned the attack on Monday, saying those responsible “will have to answer for their actions”.

The French government has warned citizens against displacement outside Niger’s capital Niamey, as militants linked to Boko Haram, Islamic State and Al Qaeda carry out attacks across the vast country of ‘West Africa. Niger borders several countries including Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Nigeria and Libya.

Violence by rebels linked to the EI group and al-Qaeda is on the rise in the Sahel region. France has deployed 5,100 troops to help fight the growing insurgency in that country, and a local Sahelian force made up of troops from Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania have also fought the extremists.

ACTED said it is now banning its staff across Niger, Chad, Mali and Burkina Faso from leaving their areas following the attack.

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The group insisted it had taken the necessary security measures, requiring authorization three days in advance for their staff to travel within Niger. ACTED co-founder Marie-Pierre Caley said it was the first such attack in the giraffe park area and described it as much safer than other areas in Niger where group staff work.

ACTED co-founder Frédéric Roussel said it may have been an opportunistic attack by a small group targeting Westerners, but said it was too early to say for sure .

He described the increasingly stringent security measures for ACTED workers in recent years, but said the attack should not deter aid workers “from helping the most threatened populations on the planet”.

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