An army patrol in Niger has attacked a convoy carrying suspected al-Qaeda militants, killing three of them, the country's defence minister says.
Mahamadou Karidio said in a statement that the clash occurred in the Agadez region in the remote northern desert.
Arms were recovered and more than 50 young men who had been forcibly recruited were captured, he said.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is active in Niger, Mali and Algeria, often capturing hostages for ransom.
The group was believed to be recruiting villagers by offering them pick-up trucks and cash, the Associated Press agency reports.
But the minister's statement indicates some fighters may have been forced into joining.
Mr Karidio told AP the "liberated youths" were being taken to the capital, Niamey, for questioning.
AQIM emerged during the Algerian war in the 1990s as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Five years ago it declared allegiance to al-Qaeda and changed its name, operating in the lawless Sahara Desert.