DAKAR, Senegal — Nearly 100 African migrants hoping to escape crushing poverty met a grisly end in the desert, officials said Thursday, dying of thirst under the baking sun after their two trucks broke down in the middle of the Sahara.
It took weeks for authorities to learn of the tragedy and for recovery teams to reach the distant site, where they found a gruesome scene including the remains of 52 children and 33 women.
"It was horrific. We found badly decomposing bodies and others that had been eaten by jackals," said Almoustapha Alhacen, the head of a nonprofit organization in northern Niger that helped bury the bodies and who was at the site Wednesday. "We found the bodies of small children who were huddled beside their dead mothers."
The victims were spread out across a 12-mile radius, suggesting they had set off on foot but failed to head in the direction of the Algerian border just 6 miles away, he said.
The tragedy is the latest to shed light on the perils of illegal migration. In early October, at least 365 migrants drowned when a boat capsized near the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is closer to North Africa than to the European mainland.
The migrants in Niger had begun their journey late last month in two trucks and were being smuggled along a well-established trafficking route to neighboring Algeria, said Col. Garba Makido the governor of Niger's Agadez province, south of where the bodies were found. From Algeria, many continue on in hopes of crossing from North Africa to southern Europe.
While nearly all who take this desert route are economic migrants, it was not immediately clear why so many women and children were among the victims.
Officials were alerted to the migrant deaths when a lone woman stumbled out of the desert into the Nigerien town of Arlit earlier in October.
The next day, a father walking with his two young daughters also arrived. But his children perished of thirst just a few miles outside Arlit, Makido said. A total of 92 people died and 21 survived, most of whom made their way to towns at the Algerian border.
"This is a true tragedy," the governor said. "The prosecutor has opened an investigation and we plan to do everything we can to find the truck drivers."