NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Unidentified gunmen on Saturday attacked the central prison in Niger's capital, opening fire on the guards and killing at least two people, according to a government spokesman and a witness who was 200 meters (yards) from the prison when the incident occurred. It was not immediately clear if the assailants had come from inside or outside the jail.
Two security guards were killed and a third was gravely wounded, said Niger government spokesman Marou Amadou. He said the attackers had been captured and the incident is being investigated.
"There are two versions of what happened, and right now we think it's more likely that they came from inside the jail," Amadou said by telephone. "These are people who are wanted for terrorism. We do not know how they were able to arm themselves inside the prison, and how they were able to get out to attack the guards. We have two dead guards already and one seriously wounded," he said.
Souleymane Magagi, whose house sits about 350 meters (yards) from the gates of the prison, says neighbors came running to tell him about the attack at around 3:30 p.m. When he approached the prison, he saw the bus normally used to transport prison workers parked with its doors open, near the entrance to the jail. What looked like two bodies were being loaded into the bus, though he said he was afraid of coming any closer than around 200 meters (yards) and could not be sure if the bodies were of the dead guards, or if they were people wounded in the incident.
Magagi, who is the secretary-general of the country's union for mine and petroleum workers, says he believes the attackers came from the outside.
"There is a specific hour at mealtime when relatives of the prisoners are allowed inside the prison with baskets of food for their relatives. They took advantage and entered at this moment," he said, saying he had spoken to relatives that were already in the prison complex waiting to bring food to their family members when the shooting erupted. He believes the attackers were trying to free fighters from the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, based in Nigeria, Niger's larger neighbor to the south.
"Armed men came and attacked the central prison," said Magagi. "They shot at the guards and were able to penetrate the prison, probably to liberate their colleagues. They are likely elements of MUJAO and Boko Haram."
However, the government spokesman said that it is too early to say which group carried out the attack, describing them simply as "people with links to terrorism." Also reached by telephone on Saturday, Defense Minister Karidjo Mahamadou said that he was away from the capital, and did not have details on the identity of the attackers, adding: "The situation is under control."
An Associated Press reporter who rushed to the scene was unable to get close because the roads leading to the prison had been roped off. The prison attack comes a little over a week after after Islamic extremists carried out one of the boldest attacks in recent years when suicide bombers on May 23 infiltrated the Nigerien towns of Agadez and Arlit, succeeding in detonating explosives inside a military camp and a French-operated uranium mine, killing 35 people in all. Both those attacks were claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, as well as by "Those Who Sign in Blood," the six-month-old terror cell of Algerian jihadist Moktar Belmoktar, who also masterminded the attack on a BP-operated gas plant in Algeria in January.
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.