Niamey - Niger's government on Friday announced three days of mourning for 92 migrants, nearly all of them women and children, who died in early October trying to cross the harsh Sahara desert.
In a statement published in the official Sahel daily, the government said it was "profoundly moved" by the tragedy and that the country would "pray for the memory" of the 52 children, 33 women and seven men who perished in the desert and whose decomposed bodies, some of them eaten by jackals, were found last week.
Flags flew at half-mast on official buildings in memory of the victims, who all came from the south of the deeply poor west African country and were headed for Algeria.
Those who died were "migrants like we see them pretty much everywhere, such as in the dramas on the Mediterranean Sea," said Rhissa Feltou, the mayor of Agadez, the main town in north Niger.
News of the desert deaths came after more than 360 migrants, mostly Eritreans, perished at sea near the Italian island of Lampedusa at the beginning of October as they sought to reach Europe.
Only 21 people survived out of 113 who tried to cross Niger's desert border into Algeria on board two trucks, which both broke down, according to a highly placed security source.
Sadafiou, a man in his 30s who lost three family members, recently told the private Sahara FM radio that the group he was with had left the south because of an impending bad harvest, a perennial problem in the drought-prone country.
"One of us saw his wife and his nine children die," he said.'Thirst is merciless'
The victims "died of thirst, since their two vehicles almost simultaneously broke down," Feltou said.
"In the desert, thirst is merciless. The strongest can hold out three or four days, but in general at the end of 24 or 48 hours, a swift death process ensues," the mayor of Agadez added.
The bodies were discovered in small groups "in a radius of 20 kilometres (12 miles)", said Almoustapha Alhacen of the non-governmental organisation Aghir In'man ("Human Shield" in the language of the ethnic Tuareg people of the desert).
A security source said he believed migrants had managed to survive for five days and then "began to leave the broken-down vehicle in search of a well".
A woman who originally came from south Niger and allegedly organised the fateful journey was detained by security forces in Tamanrasset, where she lived, and sent back to Arlit, where she was locked up, a security source said.
The last disaster on such a scale was reported in May 2001 in Libya, which was considered an El Dorado to find work in the days of Moamer Kadhafi. Then, 140 people were found dead of thirst in the desert.
Since the fall of Kadhafi in 2011, the route via Agadez to Libya and on to Europe has gained popularity over the journey to Algeria. More than 5,000 west Africans, many of them from Niger, took the Agadez trail each month between March and August this year, according to the United Nations.
At Saint Peter's Square in the Vatican, Pope Francis on Friday urged Christians worldwide to join him in prayers "for all those of our brothers and sisters, men, women and children, who died victims of hunger, of thirst, of fatigue on their way to find better living conditions."
"These days, we have seen pictures in the papers of the cruel desert," the pope told a crowd of 60,000 in an impromptu departure from his homily for All Saints' Day.
The pope has previously taken up the cause of people faced with poverty and violence who seek a better future and he has spoken out against the human trafficking that exploits would-be migrants by taking all their goods and treating them in cruel and degrading ways.