ROME — Pope Francis reached out to the people of Niger Wednesday, offering prayers and encouragement following lethal terror attacks that claimed the lives of at least 137 people.
“I learned with sorrow the news of the recent terrorist attacks in Niger, which caused the deaths of 137 people,” the pope said after his weekly General Audience. “Let us pray for the victims, for their families and for the entire population so that the violence suffered may not cause them to lose trust in the path of democracy, justice and peace.”
Three attacks on villages and settlements in western Niger have left more than 200 dead in six days, with Sunday’s killing of at least 137 civilians the deadliest suspected jihadist massacre ever committed in Niger.
According to one local official, “armed men arrived on motorbikes and shot at everything [that] moved.”
Although no group has yet claimed credit for the massacres, they bear the mark of the Islamic State terror group, the only jihadist group in the area large enough and well enough organized to carry out attacks of this magnitude, local media report.
“In treating civilian populations systematically as targets now, these armed bandits have gone a step further into horror and brutality,” said government spokesman Zakaria Abdourahamane in a statement Monday.
The Islamic State has been strengthening its hold in western Niger over the past two years.
According to Ibrahim Yahaya Ibrahim, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, taxes levied by the jihadists have been increasing, along with and the theft of cattle, the murder of village leaders, and the displacement of segments of the population.
“We must read this new dynamic of conflict involving civilians as a response by the jihadists of the Islamic State to locally organized community resistance,” Ibrahim said.
The scale of the recent killings is unprecedented. Until recently, the Islamic State group would target a few isolated individuals in retaliation for their collaboration with the government or with an enemy jihadist group.
In the current situation, the jihadists are now carrying out a collective punishment, Ibrahim said, where the whole community is targeted.