Seven soldiers have been killed in Niger’s southwest in an attack by suspected rebels, and five others died in a traffic accident while trying to respond to the assault.

The deaths on Thursday come as former colonial power France prepares to withdraw a counterinsurgency force stationed in the country at the request of its new military leaders, who seized power in a coup two months ago.

Niger’s defence minister, Salifou Mody, said in a statement that a military unit had been “violently attacked by several hundred terrorists” in the town of Kandadji on Thursday, adding that seven soldiers were killed in the fighting.

“During an intervention” launched in response to the attack, “a tragic traffic accident led to the loss of five of our brave soldiers”, he continued. Another seven people were injured and evacuated to a hospital, he said.

“A search and sweep operation is now underway in order to track down the enemy,” the minister said.

The Tillaberi region, where the attack took place, is located in the so-called “three borders” zone where Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali meet. The area is a hideout for rebels, particularly those affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group.

The country’s southwest, where it shares a border with Nigeria, is similarly plagued by attacks by Boko Haram and its dissident branch, the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP).

The leaders of the coup that toppled Niger’s elected government in late July had cited the deterioration of the security situation in the country as justification.

According to Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a conflict aggregator, the number of deaths from rebel attacks in Niger has risen since the generals seized power

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