Niger on Friday decreed two days of national mourning after 22 soldiers were killed in an attack blamed on jihadists against a camp in Niger sheltering almost 4 000 Malian refugees.
Flags would be flown at half mast following the attack of “unparalleled cowardice”, the Nigerian presidency said in a statement.
The assault on the camp in Tazalit, in the Tahoua region some 300 kilometres (200 miles) northeast of the capital Niamey and close to the Malian border, took place in broad daylight on Thursday.
“A band of unidentified criminals in vehicles that had travelled from Mali” carried out the attack, killing “14 national guards, five gendarmes, and three army soldiers,” defence ministry spokesman Moustapha Ledru said in a televised statement.
“Immediately after their crime, the assailants took flight towards Mali. The enemy were pursued in order to catch and neutralise them,” he added.
“This attack will not go unpunished,” the spokesman pledged, calling on the country’s security forces to continue their “implacable fight against these criminal groups with courage and dedication.”
A security official who asked not to be named said “some 30 to 40 heavily armed men speaking in Tuareg carried out the attack, killing 22 soldiers.”
The assailants “headed directly to the camp’s security post and machine-gunned the soldiers who were having lunch,” he said.
He said the attack was “probably carried out by jihadists.”
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR), which confirmed the death toll, said in a statement that five soldiers were also hurt in the attack, while the three remaining soldiers deployed at the camp managed to escape.
No refugees were hurt, according to the agency.
The attackers left some two hours later after seizing a vehicle as well as weapons, food, medical supplies and clothing.
UNHCR says about 60,000 Malians have sought refuge in Niger, which is also sheltering around 80,000 Nigerians who have fled attacks by Boko Haram jihadists.
Boko Haram in recent months has escalated its attacks inside Niger, with at least 26 soldiers killed in the southeastern town of Bosso in June.
In attacks attributed to other jihadist groups active in the region, at least two civilians were killed last month at the Tabareybarey refugee camp in western Niger, near the border with Mali.
Despite a peace accord and a 2013 international military intervention, large tracts of Mali are still not controlled by domestic or foreign troops and remain subject to attacks by jihadists.
Although its long borders are quite porous, Niger has for the most part escaped the armed violence that has rocked neighbouring states Libya and Nigeria, as well as Mali.Northern Mali fell under the control of Al-Qaeda-linked jihadi groups in 2012 before a French-led military intervention the following year, which is still ongoing, pushed them out of the area.