Six French aid workers with the nongovernmental organization ACTED and their local guide and driver were killed Sunday by gunmen riding motorcycles in an area of southwestern Niger that is home to the last West African giraffes, officials said.
The six worked for the international aid group, Niger’s Defense Minister Issoufou Katambé told Reuters. Officials had earlier described them as tourists.
“Among the eight people killed in Niger, several are ACTED employees,” said Joseph Breham, an NGO lawyer.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the assault.
French President Emmanuel Macron denounced “the deadly attack which cowardly hit a group of humanitarian workers” in Niger and said in a statement Sunday the attack will be investigated.
Macron, who spoke Sunday with his Nigerien counterpart Mahamadou Issoufou, added that “their determination to continue the common fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel” remained intact.
The president “expresses his condolences and the support of the French nation to the families and relatives of the victims,” the statement said.
It is believed to be the first such attack on Western tourists in the area, a popular attraction in the former French colony thanks to its unique population of West African or Niger giraffes.
A source close to Niger’s environmental services said the assault took place around 11:30 a.m. (1030 GMT) 6 kilometers (4 miles) east of the town of Koure, which is an hour’s drive from the capital, Niamey.
“Most of the victims were shot. … We found a magazine emptied of its cartridges at the scene,” the source told AFP.
“We do not know the identity of the attackers, but they came on motorcycles through the bush and waited for the arrival of the tourists.”
The source also described the scene of the attack, where bodies were laid side-by-side next to a torched off-road vehicle, which had bullet holes in its rear window.
Around 20 years ago, a small herd of West African giraffes, a subspecies distinguished by its lighter color, found a haven from poachers and predators in the Koure area.
Today they number in their hundreds and are a key tourist attraction, enjoying the protection of local people and conservation groups.
However the Tillaberi region is in a hugely unstable location, near the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso.
The region has become a hideout for Sahel jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).
The use of motorcycles has been totally banned since January in an attempt to curb the movements of such jihadists.