Niamey - Rescuers have found the bodies of 92 migrants, most
of them women and children, strewn across the Sahara desert in northern Niger
after their vehicles broke down and they died of thirst, authorities said on
Rescue worker Almoustapha Alhacen said the bodies of 52
children, 33 women and seven men were found close to the Algerian border, about
160km north of the mining town of Arlit in northern Niger.
Many of the victims, all believed to be from Niger, were in
an advanced state of decomposition and had been partly devoured by animals,
probably jackals, he said.
Niger's government declared three days of national mourning
starting on Friday and said it would launch a crackdown on the networks
ferrying migrants across the Sahara.
Northern Niger lies on a major corridor for illegal
migration and people-trafficking from sub-Saharan African into north Africa and
across the Mediterranean into Europe.
Most of those who make the perilous journey on ancient
open-topped trucks are young African men in search of work. Rescuers said the
doomed convoy was puzzling.
"It's the first time I've seen anything like it,"
Alhacen told Reuters by telephone from Arlit. "It is hard to understand
what these women and children were doing there."
Rescuers found many small writing slates among the luggage,
suggesting the children may have been students in a Qu'ranic school being taken
to Algeria, perhaps to beg, Alhacen said.
Alhacen said 19 of the group had reached Algeria by foot and
were repatriated to Niger by authorities there. Two survived after walking
dozens of kilometres across the burning desert back to Arlit.
The bodies of 87 of the victims were buried on Wednesday in
accordance with Islamic custom, he said.
Trucks break down
The migrants had set off in two trucks from Arlit towards
Tamanrasset in Algeria sometime between late September or early October,
After one truck broke down, the second turned back to look
for help but was stranded and the passengers tried to return by foot. It was
weeks before authorities were alerted and able to reach the site.
"Sometimes in the vast desert, there are tragedies like
this which are never even discovered," government spokesman Marou Amadou
told state television.
"So the government has instructed administrative
authorities and defence forces to put an end to this transport which
Authorities said all the passengers came from the region of
Kantche in southern Niger, 700km east of the capital Niamey.
Many people emigrate to flee poverty in Niger, ranked by the
United Nations as the least developed country on earth. Some work in
neighbouring Libya and Algeria to save money before returning home.
The networks which send trucks across the desert also
attract migrants from other countries in West Africa who dream of a more
prosperous life in Europe.
Many of the people-smugglers are from nomadic groups who
have seen their traditional pastoral lifestyle destroyed by droughts since the
1970s, according to a UN report published in February.
More than 32 000 people have arrived in southern Europe from
Africa so far this year.
A crackdown by Spanish authorities has largely closed a
route from the West African coast to the Canary Islands which drew tens of
thousands of migrants in the mid-2000s.
Instead, most now try to make the Mediterranean crossing from
north Africa to southern Europe, many losing their lives when their rickety
boats are wrecked.
More than 500 people are believed to have died in two
shipwrecks off southern Italy this month.