France launches anti-terror inquiry into attack on aid workers in Niger

France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor has opened an investigation into the killing of six French aid workers at a wildlife reserve in Niger, as Emmanuel Macron condemned what he called a “cowardly” attack.

A local driver working with the French humanitarian group ACTED and a guide were also killed in the attack, which took place on Sunday morning in a reserve known as the Giraffe Zone, home to the last remaining population of west African giraffes, in the south-western region of Kouré. Attackers on motorbikes ambushed the group as it drove through the reserve, which is in an area considered safe by Niger’s government.

Images broadcast on France’s TF1 television channel showed the torched remains of a 4×4 vehicle sprayed with bullet holes.

Jihadist groups have not claimed responsibility for the killing but are widely suspected, in a country that has been beset by a jihadist insurgency. In the clearest sign yet that France believes a militant group was involved, the office of France’s anti-terrorism prosecutor said it was launching an investigation on suspicion of the involvement of a terrorist group.

In a statement posted on Twitter, the French president said: “Several of our compatriots and Nigeriens were cowardly murdered yesterday in Niger in a deadly attack. I share the pain of their families and loved ones. Some were hired for the most altruistic of missions: to help people.”

Macron also pledged support for the restive west African nation during a phone call late on Sunday with its president, Mahamadou Issoufou. Both leaders pledged that “all means are and will be implemented to shed light on the circumstances of this murderous attack”, according to a statement released by Macron’s office.

A French military source told Reuters that Nigerien and French forces had been combing through the reserve and surrounding areas in pursuit of the gunmen.

The aid staff were all employed by ACTED, which said on Monday: “Aid workers must never be a target. Our colleagues have been working to support the people of Niger facing hardship, driven by values of humanity and solidarity.”

The Association of Kouré’s Giraffe Guides said its president, Kadri Abdou, was killed in the attack. “We are grieving and thinking of the victims and their families to whom we extend our deepest condolences, and especially to the family of Kadri, our friend,” it said on Facebook.

Jihadist attacks have proliferated in the volatile south-western Tillaberi region of Niger, close to the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso, where jihadist groups have made a haven.

Islamic State is among numerous terrorist actors at large in the Sahel region also spanning Mauritania and Chad, killing thousands of people and displacing millions in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. Around 13 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, with 4.5 million internally displaced.

France, a former colonial power in the francophone region, has deployed thousands of troops in Niger and the Sahel since 2013, yet violence continues to rise. Macron said France’s determination to combat armed terrorist groups remained resolute.

West Africa’s giraffe population has been reduced by drought and intense poaching, though in recent years numbers have rebounded from just 50 in 1996 to more than 600, thanks to protection from local communities and the efforts of conservation groups.