An army patrol in Niger attacked a four-car convoy Thursday carrying suspected al-Qaida-linked militants, killing three of them and leading to the liberation of more than four dozen youths that had been forcibly recruited by the extremist group, the defense minister said.
Mahamadou Karidio said the clash occurred in the Adrar Rabouss region in the country's far north, an area that has become a haven for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, whose footprint has grown dramatically since the group forged an allegiance with the larger al-Qaida brand.
"The clash happened in the locality of Intadere in the Air," Karidio told The Associated Press by telephone, naming the desolate region in the far north. "We killed three of them and destroyed their car. We recovered arms," he said including an RPG-7, numerous AK-47s and munitions.
AQIM has increased in number and potency since merging with the larger al-Qaida franchise in 2006. They began kidnapping Westerners including tourists and aid workers in Niger, Mauritania, Tunisia and Algeria, raising millions of dollars in ransom money to bankroll their operation.
In January, two French nationals were seized by AQIM gunmen from a restaurant in Niger's capital, and were killed when French commandos launched an operation to try to save them.
The group, which analysts say has between 300 and 600 members, was believed to be recruiting villagers who are offered pickup trucks and cash to join. But the minister's declaration indicates some of their fighters may have been forced into joining.
Karidio said that during the raid, their soldiers were able to liberate more 50 youths who had been forcibly recruited. They were being transported to Niamey for questioning, he said.