By Abdoulaye Massalatchi
NIAMEY (Reuters) - 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 Thursday.
Rescue worker Almoustapha Alhacen said the bodies - 52 children, 33 women and seven men from Niger - were found on the route from the northern mining town of Arlit to the Algerian border.
Many were in an advanced state of decomposition and had been partly devoured by animals, probably jackals, he said.
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 of women and children 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 writing slates in 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 kilometers (miles) 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 some time between late September and mid-October, officials and rescue workers said.
After one truck broke down, the second turned back to look for help but was stranded and the passengers tried to return by foot.
"The search is still going on," the mayor of Arlit, Maouli Abdouramane, said by telephone.
Many people flee poverty in Niger, ranked by the United Nations as the least developed country on earth. Some work in neighboring Libya and Algeria to save money before returning home.
The networks which send trucks across the desert also attract migrants from across West Africa who dream of a more prosperous life in Europe.
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.
(Writing and additional reporting by Bate Felix and Daniel Flynn; Editing by Andrew Roche)