The deaths come as former colonial power France prepares to withdraw a counterinsurgency force stationed in the country.
Seven soldiers have been killed in Niger’s southwest in an attack by suspected rebels, and five others died in a traffic accident while trying to respond to the assault.
The deaths on Thursday come as former colonial power France prepares to withdraw a counterinsurgency force stationed in the country at the request of its new military leaders, who seized power in a coup two months ago.
Niger’s defence minister, Salifou Mody, said in a statement that a military unit had been “violently attacked by several hundred terrorists” in the town of Kandadji on Thursday, adding that seven soldiers were killed in the fighting.
“During an intervention” launched in response to the attack, “a tragic traffic accident led to the loss of five of our brave soldiers”, he continued.
Another seven people were injured and evacuated to a hospital, he said.
“A search and sweep operation is now underway in order to track down the enemy,” the minister said.
The Tillaberi region, where the attack took place, is located in the so-called “three borders” zone where Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali meet. The area is a hideout for rebels, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.
The country’s southwest, where it shares a border with Nigeria, is similarly plagued by attacks by Boko Haram and its dissident branch, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).
The leaders of the coup that toppled Niger’s elected government in late July had cited the deterioration of the security situation in the country as justification.
According to Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a conflict aggregator, the number of deaths from rebel attacks in Niger has risen since the generals seized power.
“The first month of junta rule in Niger was marked by a 42 percent increase in political violence compared to the month prior,” the ACLED report read.
In mid-August, at least 17 soldiers were killed and 20 wounded in a suspected rebel attack near the border with Burkina Faso.
It was the deadliest known attack in the country since the coup.
France is currently preparing to withdraw – as demanded by the post-coup government – a contingent of 1,500 troops stationed in Niger as part of a counterinsurgency deployment in the Sahel region.
French President Emmanuel Macron has said the pullout would be completed by the end of the year, while alleging that the country’s post-coup authorities “no longer wanted to fight against terrorism”.
The coup against democratically elected president Mohamed Bazoum was the third in the region in as many years, following similar actions in Mali and Burkina Faso, both of which were also once French colonies.
The earlier coups also forced the pullouts of French troops, and all three countries have been targeted by rebel attacks for several years.
The United States, which has about 1,100 military personnel in Niger, has said it will “evaluate” its future steps following France’s announcement that its troops would withdraw.