Niger and Chad forces have launched a ground and air offensive against militant group Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria, officials say.
The campaign is said to be targeting militants in Borno state.
The move came as Nigerian officials dismissed Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to Islamic State (ISIS) as a reaction to military pressure from Nigeria and its allies.
The pledge was posted online on March 7 in an audio message by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau.
Abubakar Shekau called on Muslims everywhere to swear loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Boko Haram has been fighting an insurgency to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria since 2009, and in recent months the violence has increasingly spilled over into neighboring states.
Chad, Cameroon and Niger have already been helping Nigeria in its battle against Boko Haram.
On March 6, the African Union endorsed the creation of a regional force of more than 8,000 troops to combat the group. However, the force’s remit will be limited to securing the Nigerian side of Lake Chad, rather than pushing further into Nigeria.
As the latest offensive began early on Sunday, a resident and an aid worker told AFP news agency there had been heavy arms fire close to Niger’s border with Nigeria.
A local radio station said that a convoy of more than 200 vehicles was moving towards the area, and that air strikes had been carried out on Saturday and early on Sunday.
The Nigerian military and troops from neighboring states have recently claimed some success in their campaign against Boko Haram, and Nigerian officials said the pledge of allegiance to IS was a sign of weakness
Army spokesman Col. Sami Usman Kukasheka said the Boko Haram leader was like a “drowning man”.
A spokesman for the Nigerian government, Mike Omeri, said Boko Haram needed help “as a result of the heavy casualties and bombardment and degrading of their capacity”.
However, Boko Haram militants have continued to launch deadly attacks.
On March 7, Boko Haram was blamed for a series of attacks in its former stronghold of Maiduguri, including suicide bombings, that left more than 50 people dead.
Nigeria postponed national elections by six weeks until March 28 in order to have more time to try to improve security in the north.
Col. Sami Usman Kukasheka called on Nigerians “to be more security conscious because given the onslaught on Boko Haram definitely they are bound to spring surprises”.
ISIS has forged links with other militant groups across North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and in January, militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan pledged their allegiance.
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Three civilians and a police officer have been killed in violent protests against French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Niger’s second city of Zinder, officials say.
A number of churches and the French cultural centre were among several buildings raided and set alight.
Friday saw protests across the Muslim world over Charlie Hebdo‘s publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its first issue after last week’s attack in Paris.
Twelve people were killed in the attack at the Charlie Hebdo’s offices.
The cover of the magazine’s latest edition, published after the attack, featured a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad weeping while holding a sign saying “I am Charlie”.
Protests against the magazine were also seen on Friday in Pakistan, where protests turned violent in Karachi, the Sudanese capital of Khartoum and the Algerian capital, Algiers.
One policeman and three civilians were killed in the protests in Zinder after Friday prayers, a police source told Reuters.
“Some of the protesters were armed with bows and arrows as well as clubs. The clashes were very violent in some places,” the source added.
AFP quoted a minister as saying dozens of people had been injured.
Local residents told Reuters that demonstrators had set fire to churches and raided shops that were run by Christians.
“The protesters are crying out in local Hausa language: Charlie is Satan – let hell engulf those supporting Charlie,” a local shopkeeper said by telephone.
The French cultural centre there also came under attack.
The centre’s director, Kaoumi Bawa, said an angry crowd of around 50 people had smashed the building’s door and set fire to the cafeteria, library and offices.
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The bodies of 87 people who died of thirst after their vehicles broke down as they tried to cross the Sahara have been found by rescue workers in Niger.
Rescue worker Almoustapha Alhacen said the corpses were in a severe state of decomposition and had been partly eaten, probably by jackals.
Those found are thought to be migrant workers and their families. Most were women and children.
Niger lies on a major migrant route between sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.
But among those who make it across the desert, many end up working in North African countries.
According to Almoustapha Alhacen, one of the vehicles that the migrants were travelling in broke down some time after they left Arlit at the end of September or beginning of October.
About 80,000 migrants cross the Sahara desert through Niger
It appears that some of the group set out on foot, including up to 10 people who made it back to Arlit and raised the alarm, he said.
It was reported on Monday that five bodies had been found.
On Wednesday, volunteers and soldiers working in searing heat found other corpses about 6 miles from the Algerian border.
Speaking from Arlit, a centre for uranium mining north of Agadez, Almoustapha Alhacen said he had experienced the worst day of his life when he found the bodies.
They were given Muslim burials where they were found, he said.
Given that at least 48 of those found were children or teenagers, Almoustapha Alhacen said it was possible they were on their way to low-paid jobs in neighboring Algeria.
It is not clear which countries the migrants came from.
“There were no clues. My guess is that the children were madrassa [Islamic school] children, being taken to Algeria to work. That is the only explanation that I and others can find for such a large number of children having travelled together,” Almoustapha Alhacen said.
About 80,000 migrants cross the Sahara desert through Niger, according to John Ging, director of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
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Thirty five migrants traversing the Sahara desert on their way to Europe have died of thirst in Niger, officials say.
Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez, the main town in northern Niger, said that 35 of the 60 travelers trying to reach Algeria had died.
Agadez lies on one of the main routes migrants from West Africa use to reach Europe.
Hundreds of migrants have died this month when their boats sank as they tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
Thirty five migrants traversing the Sahara desert on their way to Europe have died of thirst in Niger
Rhissa Feltou said two vehicles had left the town of Arlit, north of Agadez, earlier this month, carrying “at least” 60 migrants.
The convoy was heading for Tamanrassett, an Algerian town in the heart of the Sahara, he said.
The mayor of Agadez said that after one vehicle broke down, passengers went to look for spare parts and bring them back for repairs.
He said the migrants broke up into small groups and started walking.
Days later, the survivors who reached Arlit, a centre for uranium mining, alerted the army, but troops arrived too late at the scene, he added.
Those left behind consisted of “entire families, including very many children and women,” Azaoua Mamane, who works for the non-governmental organization Synergie in Arlit, told the AFP news agency.