By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY (Reuters) - Rescuers have found the bodies of 92 migrants, most of them women and children, strewn across the Sahara desert in northern Niger after their vehicles broke down and they died of thirst, authorities said on Thursday.
Rescue worker Almoustapha Alhacen said the bodies of 52 children, 33 women and seven men were found close to the Algerian border, some 160 km (100 miles) north of the mining town of Arlit in northern Niger.
Many of the victims, all believed to be from Niger, were in an advanced state of decomposition and had been partly devoured by animals, probably jackals, he said.
Niger's government declared three days of national mourning starting on Friday and said it would launch a crackdown on the networks ferrying migrants across the Sahara.
Northern Niger lies on a major corridor for illegal migration and people-trafficking from sub-Saharan African into north Africa and across the Mediterranean into Europe.
Most of those who make the perilous journey on ancient open-topped trucks are young African men in search of work. Rescuers said the doomed convoy was puzzling.
"It's the first time I've seen anything like it," Alhacen told Reuters by telephone from Arlit. "It is hard to understand what these women and children were doing there."
Rescuers found many small writing slates among the luggage, suggesting the children may have been students in a Qu'ranic school being taken to Algeria, perhaps to beg, Alhacen said.
Alhacen said 19 of the group had reached Algeria by foot and were repatriated to Niger by authorities there. Two survived after walking dozens of kilometers (miles) across the burning desert back to Arlit.
The bodies of 87 of the victims were buried on Wednesday in accordance with Islamic custom, he said.
TRUCKS BREAK DOWN
The migrants had set off in two trucks from Arlit towards Tamanrasset in Algeria sometime between late September or early October, officials said.
After one truck broke down, the second turned back to look for help but was stranded and the passengers tried to return by foot. It was weeks before authorities were alerted and able to reach the site.
"Sometimes in the vast desert, there are tragedies like this which are never even discovered," government spokesman Marou Amadou told state television.
"So the government has instructed administrative authorities and defense forces to put an end to this transport which kills."
Authorities said all the passengers came from the region of Kantche in southern Niger, 700 km east of the capital Niamey.
Many people emigrate to flee poverty in Niger, ranked by the United Nations as the least developed country on earth. Some work in neighboring Libya and Algeria to save money before returning home.
The networks which send trucks across the desert also attract migrants from other countries in West Africa who dream of a more prosperous life in Europe.
Many of the people-smugglers are from nomadic groups who have seen their traditional pastoral lifestyle destroyed by droughts since the 1970s, according to a U.N. report published in February.
More than 32,000 people have arrived in southern Europe from Africa so far this year.
A crackdown by Spanish authorities has largely closed a route from the West African coast to the Canary Islands which drew tens of thousands of migrants in the mid-2000s.
Instead, most now try to make the Mediterranean crossing from north Africa to southern Europe, many losing their lives when their rickety boats are wrecked.
More than 500 people are believed to have died in two shipwrecks off southern Italy this month.
(Additional reporting by Bate Felix, Daniel Flynn and Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Andrew Roche)