Interior Minister Alkache Alhada said the attack took place in the villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye near the border with Mali.

Armed men killed dozens of civilians and wounded several more in attacks on two villages in western Niger near the border with Mali, according to a senior official.

Interior Minister Alkache Alhada told the DPA news agency that the attacks took place on Saturday in the villages of Tchombangou and Zaroumdareye in the Mangaize region.

At least 56 civilians were killed and 20 others injured, without giving the exact number of victims in each village.

It wasn’t immediately clear who was responsible for the attacks.

A local journalist told AFP news agency that 50 people were killed in Tchombangou, while Reuters, citing a security source, said at least 49 were killed and 17 were wounded in the same village.

Another 30 were killed in Zaroumdareye, Reuters reported, citing a second security source.

Ahmed Idris of Al Jazeera, who reported from the Nigerian capital Niamey, said: “The belief here is that the attackers from Mali have crossed the border.

“This is one of the most porous areas in Niger. The border with Burkina Faso is also porous and has been attacked by armed groups loyal to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS). And on the border with Nigeria we have seen increased activity with attacks by Boko Haram targeting not only civilians but also military personnel. “

The violence came the same day Niger announced the results of the first round of a presidential election.

Former Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum of the ruling Nigerian Democracy and Socialism Party led the vote with 39 percent of the vote. He will now run in a runoff election on February 20 against former President Mahamane Ousmane, who received 17 percent of the vote.

The area where the attacks took place on Saturday, Mangaize, is in Tillaberi, a vast and unstable region where the borders of Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso converge.

Fighters with ties to Al-Qaeda and the armed ISIL group have carried out increasing attacks in the West African Sahel in recent years, despite the presence of thousands of regional and foreign troops.

The violence hit Mali and Burkina Faso hardest, but it also hit western Niger. According to the United Nations, at least 4,000 people in the three nations died in 2019 in violence related to the armed groups.

On December 21, seven Nigerian soldiers were killed in an ambush in Tillaberi, while 34 villagers were massacred in the southeastern Diffa region on the Nigerian border last month.

Manu Lekunze, lecturer at the University of Aberdeen in Great Britain, named “growing population, poverty and climate change” as the drivers of instability in the Sahel.

But Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso and Mali have “fundamental structural problems” in which the states in the Sahel are “no longer able to offer individual and collaborative security,” Lekunze told Al Jazeera.

“We have to accept this fact and think about how these states need to be fundamentally reformed to meet the challenges they are facing in the 21st century,” he said.