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 before reaching Algeria.
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 (20-kilometer) radius, suggesting they had set off on foot but failed to head in the direction of the Algerian border just 6 miles (10 kilometers) away, he added.
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 only when a lone woman managed to stumble out of the desert into the Nigerien town of Arlit earlier this month.
The next day, a father walking with his two young daughters also arrived. But his children perished of thirst just a few kilometers (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."
First word of the disaster came Monday when officials reported that 35 people died but the death toll rose when more bodies were recovered from the desert.
The tract of land that runs across the continent just south of the vast Sahara desert has for decades been the province of smugglers and criminals, including the local chapter of al-Qaida. Tens of thousands of West African migrants attempting to reach Europe each year have tapped into this perilous route, after authorities cracked down on sea routes via the Atlantic Ocean.
They travel from countries across West Africa to the Nigerien city of Agadez where they pay smugglers as much as $3,000 for transport to Europe. Migrants are ferried across the ocean of sand in rickety trucks, braving one of the harshest landscapes on earth for a chance at reaching Europe.
They are willing to risk death because few meet the criteria for even a tourist visa much less have the money to travel to Europe by plane. Once in Europe, they hope to work illegally and eke out a living with enough left over to send money back to their families in Africa.
The landlocked nation of Niger is one of the world's poorest countries, and ranks last on the 2013 Human Development Index that measures criteria such as life expectancy and income.
The country has been ravaged by drought and hunger numerous times, and the United Nations estimates that of the country's population of more than 16 million, some 2.5 million people go hungry even during good agricultural years.
An estimated 42 percent of Niger's children are chronically malnourished, and one out of every eight children dies before age 5, according to U.N. figures.