Eighteen civilians have been killed in two suspected jihadist attacks in the west of Niger near the Sahel nation’s border with Mali, the government said on February 22.

The attack happened on February 20 when unidentified “armed bandits” on motorbikes attacked a truck travelling between villages in the Tillaberi region, which lies in a flashpoint zone where the frontiers of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali converge, it said.

The interior ministry, in a statement, said “the provisional toll of the attack is 18 people killed, eight injured” with five of those injured admitted to hospital in serious condition.

The truck was then set on fire, the ministry said, adding that a search was underway to find the attackers.

A local resident confirmed the death toll saying that 14 were killed in the attack on the truck.

“Three people who surprised the attackers in a hiding place in the bush, then another person in the attack on the village of Tizigorou,” the individual said, claiming to have lost “a nephew” in the attacks.

A local lawmaker, who gave a far lower toll earlier in the day, said that the vehicle targeted by the attackers had been returning from Niger’s capital Niamey on February 20 afternoon carrying passengers from four local villages as well as their cargo.

Witnesses reported that the attackers “killed nearly all of the men onboard, before taking their supplies and burning the truck,” the lawmaker said.

Armed groups carried out numerous attacks on civilians in the region in 2021, including a November 2 massacre of at least 69 members of a self-defence militia.

In October 2021, motorcycle-riding assailants killed ten people in a mosque near Tizigorou during evening prayers.

On February 16, an improvised explosive device killed five Nigerian soldiers in the southwest of the Sahel country, according to the defence ministry.

The blast occurred in the Gotheye district of Tillaberi.

Western Niger has for years faced jihadist attacks, despite the efforts of international forces deployed to the wider Sahel region to fight the Islamist insurgents.

Niger, the world’s poorest country according to the UN’s Human Development Index, has to contend with two jihadist insurgencies.

It has faced groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) in the west, as well as Boko Haram and the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in the southeast, near the border with Nigeria.

Niger’s neighbour Mali has been struggling to contain a brutal jihadist insurgency that first emerged in 2012, before spreading to Burkina Faso and Niger.

Thousands of soldiers and civilians have been killed and two million people have been displaced by the Sahel-wide conflict, of which Mali remains the epicentre.

France announced a military pullout last week due to a dispute with Mali’s military junta, which seized power in 2020 and has since defied international calls to swiftly restore civil rule.