NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger’s parliament has unanimously approved sending troops to northern Nigeria as part of a regional offensive against the Islamist Boko Haram insurgent group that has staged several cross-border attacks over the past week.
Security sources said soldiers in Diffa, a town on Niger’s border with Nigeria, shot dead a suicide bomber heading on foot towards a military base and warned that militants had infiltrated groups of civilians who had crossed into Niger.
The government later declared a 15-day state of emergency in the Diffa region with an 8 p.m. (1900 GMT) to 6 a.m. (0500 GMT) curfew.
Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, Chad and Benin agreed at the weekend to send a joint 8,700-strong force to battle the Nigerian Boko Haram, which has killed thousands of people and kidnapped hundreds more in a jihadist campaign to carve out a medieval-style caliphate.
Nigeria has postponed its Feb. 14 presidential election by six weeks, citing security concerns.
In the last few days, Niger has massed more than 3,000 troops in Diffa on its southeastern frontier with Nigeria, awaiting approval to go on the offensive.
Niger’s military operations between Friday and Tuesday have killed 218 militants, while eight soldiers and six civilians have also been killed, according to army figures.
“The pooling of the efforts and resources of concerned countries will contribute without doubt to crushing this group which shows scorn, through its barbaric acts, for the Muslim religion,” Niger’s parliamentary speaker, Adamou Salifou, said after the vote late on Monday.
The vote was supported by all 102 deputies present.
Mortars and machine-gun fire were heard in N’Guigmi on Niger’s border with Nigeria late on Tuesday as fighting raged, apparently between Boko Haram and the army, a Niger military source said. The town lies near Lake Chad, around 100 km (60 miles) east of Diffa.
On Monday, Boko Haram detonated bombs in Diffa, killing five people, its third attack there in four days. It also carried out raids in neighbouring Cameroon, kidnapping a bus full of passengers.
Locals in Diffa, which lies just a few miles from territory controlled by Boko Haram, have long spoken of sleeper cells infiltrating their communities.
Several security sources warned that militants who had been living among civilians in northern Nigeria were among those who had fled into Niger with them.
“Most of the Boko Haram fighters who have operated in Diffa have come from these displaced. They are Nigerian refugees or people from Niger who had been in Nigeria,” one officer said.
“There are real networks,” he said.
An intensification of Boko Haram violence near Lake Chad, which straddles Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger, has driven tens of thousands of Nigerians across the border.
Diffa was mainly quiet on Tuesday, but residents were scrambling for buses out of town.
“The situation in Diffa is very serious,” Niger Defence Minister Karidio Mahamadou said on a private radio station.
“We will do everything to protect the population. We will wage war against Boko Haram all the way to its last hideout.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross and the Cameroon Red Cross travelled to Cameroon’s Far North region to try to improve aid for Nigerian refugees who have crossed the border and others displaced by violence, a statement said.
The Red Cross said it was especially concerned about the roughly 30,000 Nigerians and 100 unaccompanied children at the Minawao refugee camp in Mayo-Tsanaga division.
Additional reporting by Tansa Musa in Yaounde; Writing by Daniel Flynn and David Lewis; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg