By Abdoulaye Massalaki
NIAMEY (Reuters) - Boko Haram militants attacked an island on Niger's side of Lake Chad but the army repelled them after heavy fighting, residents and security sources said on Saturday.
The Lake Chad area - a vast maze of tiny islands and swampland sheltering thousands of Nigerian refugees - is thought to be serving as a hideout for the Islamist insurgent group.
"There was heavy weapons and machine gun fire from about 2000 local time," said a resident of Niger's nearby lakeside town of N'Guigmi, which Boko Haram attempted to seize earlier this month. Niger security sources said several Boko Haram members were killed in the fighting.
It was not immediately clear which island had been attacked and whether it was inhabited, but the security sources and residents said it was in Niger and within 50 km (30 miles) of the borders with Chad and Nigeria.
Last week, Boko Haram fighters aboard motorised canoes attacked a fishing village in Chad, killing at least five people in the group's first known lethal attack on that country.
The Sunni group, which has killed thousands of people in a six-year insurgency in Nigeria, has been gaining strength in the past year. It has carved out a territory the size of Belgium in the northeast of the country and intensified cross-border raids.
But regional forces from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger have won battles against the group in recent weeks as they seek to hem them within their heartland.
Niger, a poor desert nation, is also seeking to dismantle clandestine Boko Haram networks around its southern border. The defence ministry on Friday raised 2 billion CFA francs (£3.46 million) to help the army fight the jihadists via a telethon campaign.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius arrived in Chad on Saturday as part of a 48-hour trip to countries affected by Boko Haram's insurgency. He will travel to Cameroon and Niger next.
"I came here to offer (President Idriss) Deby France's support and solidarity," he told journalists, adding that he expected African countries to lead the fight against Boko Haram. France, the former colonial master, has a strong military presence in the region and provides intelligence and logistical aid.
The United States is deepening its commitment to countering the group and will share communications equipment and intelligence with African allies.
Military chiefs will meet in Chad's capital N'Djamena next week to finalise plans for a 8,700-strong task-force of troops from Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin and Niger to fight the militant group.