French forces destroyed a convoy in Niger transporting weapons from Libya to Mali and captured fighters linked to al Qaeda, the presidency said on Friday as France steps up efforts to stop militants crisscrossing the Sahel-Sahara region.
Paris, which has led efforts to push back Islamist fighters in the region since intervening in its former colony Mali last year, started redeploying troops across West Africa in July to form a counter-terrorism force, leaving U.N. peacekeepers to deploy across Mali’s north to secure the country.
However, there has been a marked increase in attacks in recent months in the north, culminating on Tuesday in the death of a Senegalese U.N. peacekeeper being killed after a joint French-U.N. military camp in the northern Malian town of Kidal was hit by rocket fire.
“At a time when in Algiers negotiations for a peace deal and a lasting reconciliation in Mali are about to re-start, the armed terrorists … are threatening peace and security in the entire region,” the French president’s office said in a statement, referring to talks between the Malian government and Tuareg separatists that are due to take place on Oct. 17.
“That is why the president has asked French forces to hunt down the armed terrorist groups behind these attacks.”
The statement said that on Thursday night French forces, with support from Niger, intercepted and destroyed a convoy of armed vehicles in northern Niger belonging to al Qaeda’s North African arm AQIM that were transporting weapons from Libya to Mali.
It is the first time Paris has announced such an operation in Niger.