NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — A militant attack on Nigerien forces in a border region near Mali and Burkina Faso killed 23 soldiers, the defense ministry said Friday.

The soldiers were taking part in an overnight clearing operation on Tuesday in the country’s west when they were ambushed by armed men on motorcycles equipped with homemade bombs, the ministry statement said, according to state television. Details of the attack were previously unreported.

The statement by Defense Minister Gen. Salifou Mody blamed the attack on jihadi fighters, saying the army had killed about 30 attackers in response. The violence highlighted the troubles facing Niger and its neighbors.

Niger, along with neighbors Mali and Burkina Faso, is battling jihadi groups linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in a decade-long conflict in the Sahel region that is worsening. The violence killed thousands of people last year and civilian killings routinely go unpunished. More than 2 million people have been displaced, according to the United Nations. The Associated Press on Friday reported on rare first-hand details of a mass killing at a village in Burkina Faso.

Until recently, Niger was a critical element of U.S. military operations in the Sahel, where Washington has sought to help local governments beat back militant groups. Some 650 U.S. troops and hundreds of support staff work at a recently built airbase in Agadez, about 920 kilometers (550 miles) from Niamey. But last week, Niger’s ruling junta said it no longer recognized the U.S. presence there, casting doubt on the future of U.S. military operations in the Sahel. The U.S. has said the ruling junta has not formally asked them to leave, and it is weighing its options.

The junta in Niamey seized control in July when soldiers — including some trained by the U.S. — ousted the country’s democratically elected president. France completed the withdrawal of its forces from Niger in December after being asked to leave.

Mali and Burkina Faso are also led by juntas and have experienced two coups each since 2020. Fed up with the continued violence, both juntas have expelled French forces and turned to Russian mercenaries instead.

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