Niger is pressing ahead with an initiative to talk to jihadists whose attacks have shaken the country’s southwest, amid fears that a new wave of bloodshed lies ahead.
A source in his office said President Mohamed Bazoum first reached out to the jihadists “three months ago,” offering “an extended hand” to youngsters who had been recruited to an Islamic State-linked group.
Last month, Bazoum announced he had begun “discussions” with jihadists as part of “the search for peace.”
He said he had released several militants and received them at the presidential palace.
He said he had also dispatched envoys to meet nine “terrorist chiefs.”
A presidential aide said the emissaries were local officials, traditional and religious leaders, and relatives of the jihadist chiefs.
Tillaberi is located in the flashpoint “three borders” zone of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali, where jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) operate.
The ISGS controls large areas near Burkina and Mali, and its fighters have already come within 100 kilometres (62 miles) of the capital Niamey.
A relative lull lasting several weeks abruptly ended on Thursday when suspected jihadists killed 21 people in an assault on a truck and bus.
The Sahel region of West Africa has been struggling with a jihadist revolt that sprang up in northern Mali a decade ago and spread to Niger and Burkina Faso three years later.
Thousands of civilians have died, more than 2.5 million have fled their homes and 10.5 million are facing crisis levels of hunger, according to the United Nations.