The soldiers were on a mission in the Tillaberi region town of Kandadji when hundreds of jihadis on motorcycles attacked them Thursday, Gen. Salifou Mody, Niger's defense minister, said in a statement. The wounded were evacuated to military hospitals, the statement said.
The junta claimed that military personnel killed a hundred extremists and destroyed their motorcycles and weapons. The Associated Press was not able to independently verify the claim.
Niger has battled a jihadi insurgency linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group for years. Attacks have increased since mutinous soldiers toppled the country's democratically elected president, Mohamed Bazoum, in July.
During the month after the junta seized power, violence primarily linked to the extremists soared by more than 40%, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Jihadi attacks targeting civilians quadrupled in August compared with the month before, and attacks against security forces spiked in the Tillaberi region, killing at least 40 soldiers, the project reported.
Niger was seen as one of the last democratic countries in Africa's Sahel region that Western nations could partner with to beat back the jihadi insurgency in the vast expanse below the Sahara Desert. The United States, France and other European countries poured hundreds of millions of dollars into shoring up the Nigerien military.
Amid a swell of anti-France sentiment in its former colony., French President Emmanuel Macron announced the withdrawal by the end of the year of his country's 1,500 troops stationed in Niger. France's ambassador to Niger, Sylvain Itte, left the country this week after a months'-long standoff with the junta, which had ordered him out.
The loss of support from France and potentially from the United States will make it hard for the junta to stave off the jihadis, conflict analysts believe.
“It’s quite predictable to witness more and more jihadi operations,” Wassim Nasr, a journalist and senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, said.
“There’s no more support from the French either by air or special forces," he said. "Once Niger’s forces there lose the support of the allies, it’s very difficult to sustain and hold onto the land.”
Thursday’s attack occurred in an area where the Islamic State group is active and where French special operations forces were actively supporting Niger’s military, Nasr said.
The security vacuum left by the French has also further pit rival jihadi groups against each other, he said.
Mednick reported from Dakar, Senegal