At least 44 migrants, including babies, have died of thirst after their vehicle broke down in the Sahara Desert as they were making their way to Libya, an official in Niger said Thursday.

Niger is a major route for West African migrants making their way toward Europe. Some 300,000 migrants passed through the vast West African nation in 2016 alone, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Most of the dead migrants were from Ghana, said the prefect of Dirkou locality, Bachir Manzo. They included three babies, two children and 17 women. The official said six people survived, and are being cared for in the Dirkou migrant center.

It is impossible to know how many migrants are lost in the desert with so many making their way north. Bodies may not be discovered for weeks, and generally those that are found are buried in the desert or left where they are.

"Since the end of 2016 there's been more controls against the trafficking of people, but there's a trend showing people are willing to take even more risks now" for various reasons, said International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Aurelie Lachant in Geneva.

The bodies were discovered just days after President Mahamadou Issoufou made a plea to the leaders of G-7 industrialized nations to address the migration crisis during a meeting in Taormina, Sicily.

Niger is one of the world's poorest countries and has been strained by the migration burden. The IOM says most of the migrant traffic is not refugee-related.

Also Thursday, a local Red Cross worker said an attack by suspected extremists near Niger's border with Mali killed 40 people, including six soldiers.

Issa Younoussi says civilians are among the dead in the attack in Abala, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northeast of the capital, Niamey.

It is not clear who staged the attack.


Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed.