NIAMEY, Niger (AP) — With the help of French special forces, Niger's military on Friday killed the last two jihadists holed up inside a dormitory on the grounds of a military garrison in the desert town of Agadez, and freed at least two soldiers who had been held hostage by the extremists, according to French and Nigerien officials.
For hours there had been conflicting reports on whether or not the al-Qaida-linked attackers had succeeded in kidnapping several soldiers inside the military base. But on Friday afternoon, Niger Defense Minister Kardijo Mahamadou confirmed their troops had broken through the attackers' defenses in the building where they had barricaded themselves. Once inside the dorm, the soldiers found and liberated the two hostages, who were unharmed, he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"Our military forces and French special forces assaulted (the building) and the hostages — a total of two people — were freed," he said. "There were two kidnappers who were hiding in the military dorm, and both were killed. The operation is now finished," said Mahamadou.
Government spokesman Marou Amado confirmed that the assault was over: "There's no one left. It's over. We neutralized them," he said by telephone.
In Paris, a French Defense Ministry official confirmed that French forces had taken part in the operation and that the hostages had been freed, though he did not provide a number.
It brings to an end one of the Sahel region's most catastrophic attacks, which began on Thursday at dawn when suicide bombers simultaneously attacked the military camp in Agadez and a French-operated uranium mine 100 miles to the north. A total of 21 people and five jihadists were killed in the initial assault, after the attackers rammed their explosive-laden cars past the gates of the base and the mine, detonating them inside, according to the ministry of defense.
In Agadez, at least two jihadists survived the explosion. They ran into a nearby dormitory, from where they traded fire with government and French forces, said Amadou. It's unclear how long the standoff lasted.
In Paris, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television on Friday that France had intervened in the standoff at the request of Niger's president.
"The situation has stabilized, particularly in Agadez, where our special forces intervened in support of Nigerien forces at the request of the president of Niger," he said. "That allowed us to achieve a stabilization of the situation."
The twin attacks were claimed by the Mali-based Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, a spinoff of al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa. It was also claimed in a statement posted late Thursday on jihadist forums by notorious Algerian terrorist, Moktar Belmoktar, whose brigade known as "Those Who Sign in Blood" is also responsible for the devastating attack in January on the Ain Amenas gas plant, where 37 foreigners including American, French, Irish and British citizens were killed.
Belmoktar issued a communique in Arabic, signed with his nom de guerre Abu Khalid al-Abass, saying that the double attack was retaliation for the French-led military intervention in neighboring Mali, whose north was ruled for 10 months by jihadist groups, including Belmoktar's brigade and MUJAO.
Chadian troops who joined the intervention said they killed Belmoktar, but the death was never confirmed by French authorities. The claim of responsibility, if verified, of the Niger attack would show that the Chadians' assertion they had killed Belmoktar was false.
He dedicated the attacks to slain Mali-based commander Abou Zeid, one of the emirs of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, who was killed in February during a sweep by French and Chadian forces of the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in far northern Mali. Until late last year, Belmoktar was an emir of the al-Qaida cell. He quit the group to create his own terror cell, launching first the attack in Algeria in January and now this week's attack in Niger.
Belmoktar goes on to say that the operation is in direct response to comments made by Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who claimed that the jihadists in Mali had been eliminated. "This is the first of our responses to the statement of the president of Niger — from his masters in Paris — that he eliminated jihad and the mujahedeen militarily. We will have more operations, by the strength and power of Allah, and not only that, but we will move the battle to inside his country," he warned.
Both Belmoktar and MUJAO have warned that they will strike not just at French interests throughout Africa, but also at the African governments that helped them reconquer northern Mali. Niger sent a battalion of 650 troops to the Malian city of Gao to help flush out the Islamists.
"We warn all the countries that are intending to participate in the Crusader campaign on our land, even if in the name of peacekeeping, that we will make you taste the heat of death and wounds in your homeland and among your soldiers," he wrote. "As you kill you will be killed. And as you bomb you will be bombed."
The U.N. Security Council on Friday condemned the terrorist attacks and urged all countries to cooperate with Nigerien authorities to bring the perpetrators to justice. The council reaffirmed the need to combat terrorism by all means, stressing that "any acts of terrorism are criminal and unjustifiable, regardless of their motivation."
Associated Press writers Angela Charlton and Jamey Keaten contributed to this report from Paris and Edith Lederer contributed from New York.