Niger residents fear spread of 'war on terror'

People in Niger have begun to express fears of a "war on terror" in their homeland, after unprecedented suicide attacks in the north and a bloody jailbreak in the capital Niamey staged by armed Islamic extremists.

"This terrorism that we heard about elsewhere has thus arrived here," Niamey taxi driver Moussa said, referring to the Islamist insurgency that divided neighbouring Mali early last year, prompting foreign armed intervention.

Since the attacks, the peaceful capital on the shore of the Niger river has almost been placed in a state of siege. The strengthening of security is especially visible around sensitive sites such as the presidential palace and the airport.

Soldiers and paramilitary police have also stepped up their guard around foreign embassies. "They're particularly edgy. It's best to follow orders," Massaoudou Amadou, a resident who lives close to the US embassy, told AFP.

Tensions were raised by twin suicide bombings on May 23 in the north, targeting an army base in Agadez and a uranium mine at Arlit run by French nuclear giant Areva. More than 20 people were killed. Then came Saturday's jailbreak in the southern capital, when about 20 prisoners escaped, including several "terrorists", according to the government.

"We're really afraid, we haven't slept at night for several days," Amina said, watching over her two children on her doorstep. This Niamey mother lives close to the prison, where security has been sharply tightened since Saturday's raid.

For fear of attacks, the interior ministry has cancelled the Baby Fiesta, a children's festival that marks the final weekend of the school year. Football matches have also been cancelled.

At a bus stop, schoolgirl Fati Soumana said she would get used to a new lifestyle with its constraints. "We all need to cooperate to fight terrorism. I don't mind losing some of my freedom if my safety is ensured."

Idi Hassane, a teacher at the Abdou Moumouni University of Niamey, argued that "more than food and water, the security question is becoming a priority in Niger", a sub-Saharan country which is one of the poorest in the world and prey to chronic food shortages.

Confronted in recent years with attacks carried out by armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda, notably the kidnapping of Westerners, the Nigerien authorities see the latest attacks as a basis to urge people to be more watchful than ever.

"We need a national union against terrorism, we ask the population to be vigilant at every moment," Niamey mayor Oumarou Dogari said in a public television broadcast.

"Our habits are going to change," he added, warning citizens to expect stringent checks by the security services.

The speaker of the National Assembly, Hama Amadou, took a more belligerent approach, describing the bombings in the north as "a declaration of war" against Niger. "But there's no question of creating a psychotic atmosphere about security in our country. Rather, it's a matter of organising a climate of real insecurity for the enemy and his accomplices."

Responsibility for both suicide attacks, the first in the history of the west African country, were claimed by armed Islamist groups, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Signatories in Blood.

Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, held to have organised the bombings, has threatened to attack Niger again, together with other countries who have troops in Mali, where a French-led military intervention in January seized back control of northern towns from movements linked to Al-Qaeda.

However, some people in Niger have expressed concern at unwanted side-effects of the struggle against terrorism. On Sunday, security forces killed a student when they opened fire on his car because they found his movements suspicious.

"We can't slide into informing (on suspects) and paranoia," retired civil servant Ali Hassane warned. "All these calls to denounce suspects will increase paranoia among the population," sociologist Sani Janjouna added.

Ahmed Moussa, a watchman in Agadez, the main town in the desert north, warned of potential social strife. "False denunciations could one day raise tensions among communities, notably against Tuaregs and Arabs," he said, pointing to Mali, where these two communities are sometimes targeted because jihadist fighters came from their ranks.

"We really must pay attention."