Niger mourns, probes weekend massacre in two villages

NIAMEY (Reuters) - Niger has declared three days of national mourning following the massacre of 100 civilians in two villages in the western region of the country where Islamist militants have carried out a series of attacks.

The government said an investigation had been launched to find the perpetrators. Witnesses have said that over a hundred armed assailants on motorbikes surrounded the villages and started firing indiscriminately on Saturday.

The government said reinforcements had been sent to the area near the tri-border region of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali known as Liptako-Gourma, where local authorities have been overrun by militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The attack highlights the fragile security in the West Africa Sahel region, and in Niger in particular, ahead of a presidential election runoff in the country on Feb. 21.

The weekend killings were among the worst in Niger's recent history.

They have forced survivors and the population of four neighbouring villages to flee, the United Nations Refugee Agency said in a statement on Monday, adding that at least 1,000 people were on the move from the area, trying to reach the town of Ouallam around 80 km (50 miles) away.

Many were making the journey on foot, the agency added.

It said that Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mali were at the epicentre of one of the world's fastest-growing displacement and protection crises, hosting 851,000 refugees already, and nearly 2 million internally displaced people.

(Reporting by Moussa Aksar and Boureima Balima; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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