A French military convoy heading to Mali on Saturday ran into more trouble in a town in Niger after being delayed for more than a week by protests in Burkina Faso, with the local mayor reporting three deaths and 18 wounded.
The supply convoy, which arrived in Africa in Ivory Coast last week, has crossed Burkina Faso and on Friday entered Niger on its way to central Mali.
Its destination is a base at Gao — a hub of France‘s Barkhane operation, which is shoring up allies in the Sahel against a jihadist insurgency that began in northern Mali nearly a decade ago.
But clashes reportedly broke out at Tera in western Niger on Saturday which the mayor said left “three people dead and 18 wounded,” including four who had to be evacuated for treatment in the capital Niamey, 200 kilometres (120 miles) away.
The French army said it was in contact with the Nigerien authorities, but was “not in a position to confirm this toll at this stage”.
“No French soldier was wounded,” French army spokesman Pascal Ianni told AFP. But “two civilian drivers in the convoy were hurt by stones and some civilian trucks were damaged.”
“The convoy halted last night at Tera. This morning, when they wanted to continue the road to Niamey, they were stopped by 1,000 demonstrators and a violent group among them tried to take over the trucks,” he said.
Niger gendarmes fired teargas to disperse the protesters, he added.
Later, mid-morning, “tensions soared again” and the gendarmes and French soldiers “fired warning shots”, Ianni said before the more than 100-vehicle convoy was able to move off.
He denied “false information” posted on social networks that the French army had killed dozens of civilians at Tera.
After entering Burkina Faso last week, the convoy was slowed by protesters at Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second largest city, and then in Ouagadougou, the capital.
On November 19, several thousand demonstrators blocked the convoy at Kaya, about 100 km north of Ouagadougou.
The following day, local sources said four people had suffered gunshot wounds in Kaya, in circumstances that remain unclear — French and Burkinabe soldiers fired warning shots and tear gas to disperse demonstrators.
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Protest organisers said they wanted to expose flaws in Burkina Faso’s security accords with former colonial ruler France.
But rumours have also spread on social media — which were recounted by protesters in Kaya — claiming the convoy was in fact carrying weapons for the jihadists.
Burkinabe Foreign Minister Alpha Barry dismissed the rumours on Wednesday and pointed to what he said was France’s long history of help at times of crisis.
On Friday Niger President Mohamed Bazoum had expressed his “gratitude” to France and applauded its “sacrifices” in the Sahel.