NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — Niger's government spokesman said that 22 prisoner escaped this weekend during an attack on the central prison by suspected militants from the Islamic extremist group, Boko Haram, headquartered in Nigeria, Niger's larger neighbor to the south.
Minister of Justice Marou Amadou, the government's spokesman, said on national television late Sunday that among the 22 prisoners was a man named Cheibani Ould Hama, whom he described as a member of an extremist group accused of having assassinated four Saudi Arabians and an American national.
Cheibani was a low-ranking member of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, according to Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center for Training and Analysis of Terrorism. Cheibani is a Malian national, who was previously active in the regions of Gao and Tarkint, linked to the brigade of recently-killed AQIM commander Abou Zeid.
Cheibani was part of the brigade's "second line," acting as a scout and providing intelligence, including helping the group identify potential kidnap victims, said Rouiller, who has worked in counterterrorism in Switzerland for decades. Cheibani was involved in the kidnapping of two Swiss tourists in 2009, said Rouiller.
Amadou said that Nigerien authorities are actively pursuing the escapees and over the weekend they opened fire on an SUV with tinted windows which refused to stop at a checkpoint.
Two prison guards were killed during the jail break.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.