Eighteen Islamic State fighters were killed in a joint operation involving French and Niger troops near the border with Mali, Niger’s defense minister said in a Thursday statement.
That comes days after France and Mali said 20 “terrorists” were killed on the Mali side of the border during the same operation, and, in a separate June 20 release, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces gave additional information about the wider cross-border operation.
18 ISGS fighters killed near Tongo Tongo
“A major joint military operation called ACONIT involving the Armed Forces of Niger (FAN) and Force Barkhane with the support of U.S. Partners” was conducted between June 8 and 18 “in the northern border region of Tongo-Tongo where a terrorist gang” from Islamic State of the Great Sahara (ISGS) were operating, the statement signed by Niger’s Minister of National Defense Kalla Moutari said.
It said 18 “terrorists” were “neutralized,” and five others, of whom three are Nigerien, were taken prisoner, while there were “no human or material losses” to report.
The group targeted were involved in the May 14 ambush in Balley Béri, near Tongo Tongo in northern Niger in which 28 soldiers were killed, the statement said.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the ambush two days later, saying fighters from its Islamic State West Africa Province affiliate killed and wounded 40 soldiers near “the artificial border with Mali.”
“Important materiel was recovered including equipment belonging to the Armed Forces of Niger which was taken by the attackers following the ambush,” the statement said.
On behalf of the president, Moutari congratulated “the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Niger and those of the French Armed Forces (Force Barkhane) who took part in this large-scale operation, as well as the American Partners, for their technical support,” and welcomed “the fruitful military cooperation between Niger and its strategic partners.”
Operation Aconit in Mali and Niger
Some information on the cross-border Operation Aconit – which is an apparent reference to deadly poisonous plants that include wolfsbane – had already been released by the French military on Monday, focusing on a joint Mali-France commando operation that killed 20 ‘terrorists’ in Mali’s Menaka area.
On Thursday, the French Ministry of the Armed Forces releasedadditional information about the large-scale operation in Mali, which it said was conducted by soldiers deployed to Operation Barkhane, the France-led counter-terrorism mission in the Sahel, alongside the Armed Forces of Mali (FAMa) and the FAN between June 7 and 19 in the Liptako border region.
The Monday release had given some information about the operation on June 13 and 14, and more detail was added on Thursday.
The ministry said Operation Aconit was planned and conducted “with very little notice” and illustrating Barkhane’s “responsiveness and agility,” saying that it was carried out after a request from Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, in response to the Baley Beri ambush.
The “rapid exploitation of intelligence provided by the FAN made it possible to locate a large terrorist group in the Azambara forest on the Malian side of the border” and “a series of actions” was launched on June 13.
“The presence of FAMa and FAN liaison officers within the tactical command posts and at the heart of the subgroups contributed to the success of the operation, making it possible to effectively coordinate the efforts of the different forces” in the area of operation, which included the villages of Akabar, Taglal, Kosseye, Tongo Tongo, Tabarkone, Zongo Dey and In Foukareteine.
Barkhane deployed more than 400 personnel and nearly 100 vehicles from Desert Battle Group (GTD) “Edelweiss” from Gao and Menaka in Mali. A section from Mali’s armed forces and a company from Niger fought alongside the French troops in their own territories.
French helicopter commandoes conducted an airborne operation supported by a Tigre helicopter patrol and a Reaper drone, entering “a wooded area in the Azabara area to directly confront the terrorist group that had been spotted there.”
The Thursday release added that a French Atlantic 2 long-range patrol aircraft was also deployed to the area.
Air strikes were carried out by helicopters from GTD “Hombori 22” as well as by Mirage 2000 jets, and a sweeping operation was conducted by the armored GTD “Edelweiss” in support of the commandoes.
“This speed of execution and the rapidity of the maneuver” created a “shock effect on the clearly identified terrorist group belonging to the Islamic State in the Great Sahara,” forcing it into confrontation.
The Thursday release did not mention casualties, but the ministry said on Monday that three crew members were injured on June 14 when a Gazelle helicopter was “forced into an emergency landing.”
“More than 20 terrorists” were neutralized, and a large quantity of resources including more than 20 motorcycles, small arms, a rocket launcher and communications equipment were seized during the operation in Mali.
“The seized material confirmed the link between this terrorist group” and the May 14 Baley Beri ambush – optical devices “stolen from the FAN” were recovered, the French release said.
ISIS acknowledged Operation Aconit in Al-Naba 187, but played-down losses. Citing a “special source” who it said was at the scene, the propaganda magazine said ISWAP fighters clashed for several hours with Malian and “French Crusader forces” in the Akabar area of Menaka. The “source” said “a number of us were wounded,” but were able to withdraw safely from the area.
Al-Naba claimed that during the engagement a French helicopter was shot down “killing and injuring those aboard.”
The France-led operation is Niger is not the first involving the two states in northern Niger. Last December, around 15 ‘terrorists’ were killed in French airstrikes followed by two days of clearance operations on the ground near Tongo Tongo.