At least 73 Nigerien soldiers were killed in an attack on a military base in western Niger, according to reports from the Ministry of Defense. 

The attack took place at the military base at Inates, along the southwestern part of the country, which borders Mali. Defense Minister Issoufou Katambe said that the troops had been in a fierce battle with several hundred militants and that in addition to the dead, 12 other soldiers were wounded while “a large number of terrorists had been neutralized.” 

Niger army spokesman Colonel Boubacar Hassan said on state television that several hundred militants attacked the base over a three-hour period on Tuesday night. “The combat was of a rare violence, combining artillery shells and the use of kamikaze vehicles by the enemy,” he said. It is also being reported that 30 soldiers are missing.

President Mahamadou Issoufou took to Twitter to announce the “tragedy that took place at the base in Inates” and returned to Niger, cutting short his trip to Egypt. The President also announced that the state of emergency, which has been in place in the country since 2017, will be extended for another three months. The state of emergency gives additional powers to security forces as the country is being wracked by militant attacks.

No one has yet claimed responsibility, but the area between Mali and Niger has seen several recent attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State. Inates is a cattle-herding community on the banks of the Niger River about 130 miles from the capital of Niamey.

In light of this attack, a planned security conference, on the deteriorating situation in the Sahel, which was scheduled for next week in France has been postponed. The conference was to be hosted by President Emmanuel Macron and was to include five West African leaders. 

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In a joint statement, Presidents Macron and Issoufou said that the conference will be put off until early next year.  

The French are spearheading the effort by the G5 Sahel Group to combat the militants from ISIS and al-Qaeda in the region of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Chad. As part of Operation Barkhane, the French have 4,500 troops in the region.

Niger’s Ministry of Defense also announced that on Monday, another attack on a military base at Agando resulted in three Nigerien soldiers killed along with 14 militants.

Last month 13 French soldiers died in a helicopter collision while fighting militants in northern Mali. 

Since armed revolt broke out in 2012 in Mali with ethnic Taureg rebels and jihadists, loosely aligned with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, thousands of civilians and troops have been killed. Many more have been displaced. The French then rushed troops in after the militants had seized nearly two-thirds of Mali. That stabilized the situation for a time. But then the militants regrouped.

The fighting along the Sahel region then spread to Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania. The Sahel is a semi-arid strip of land that stretches south of the Sahara.

Right now the violence is strongest in Mali and Burkina Faso. Large segments of each country are ungovernable. 

The attack in Niger, where the violence has spread, is considered the worst loss of life for the military in living memory.