DIFFA, NIGER (Reuters) - Soldiers in Niger killed 14 unarmed civilians after mistaking them for Boko Haram militants during a patrol in the remote southeast of the country, a senior regional official said on Thursday.
Nigerien soldiers were patrolling a militarily restricted zone around the village of Abadam near Lake Chad on Wednesday afternoon when they opened fire on what turned out to be farmers, according to Yahaya Godi, the Secretary General of the Diffa region of southeast Niger.
"Fourteen people are dead. Abadam is a village located in the red zone and has been prohibited for a very long time," said Godi. "Any individual seen in the area is considered Boko Haram."
He said two of the dead were from Niger and the rest from neighboring Nigeria, where Boko Haram is based and from which the jihadist group has sometimes carried out cross-border attacks into Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
It was not immediately clear why the civilians were in the restricted area and what made the soldiers open fire. Nigerien army officials were not reachable for comment.
One witness said the farmers had just finished eating when gunfire broke out, forcing them to flee.
The incident occurred three days after suspected Boko Haram militants killed nine people and abducted dozens more in southern Niger. That attack raised concern about Niger's inability to stop Boko Haram crossing the desert border from their bases in Nigeria.
The Diffa region has seen intense fighting over the past year between Niger's army and Boko Haram. Thousands of people have been displaced and many areas are off-limits.
(Reporting by Lawan Boukar; writing by Edward McAllister; editing by Mark Heinrich)