NIAMEY (Reuters) - At least 10,000 people have fled northern Nigeria for neighbouring Niger and Chad to escape a military sweep targeting members of Islamist militant group Boko Haram, officials said on Thursday.
Niger’s government said that at least 10,000 of its citizens had returned from northern Nigeria over the past six months, and the International Organisation for Migration said more than 800 Chadians had done the same in recent days.
The influx of people into Niger, a landlocked desert state that is also dealing with tens of thousands of refugees from Libya’s war and a rebellion in northern Mali, could worsen an expected food shortage there this year.
“According to statistics we’ve seen from the police, we have 10,000 Nigeriens that have returned on their own since the start of violence in Nigeria,” said Boube Yaye, Niger’s permanent secretary in charge of Nigeriens abroad.
He added that at least 13 Nigeriens living in northern Nigeria had been falsely arrested in the sweep, and appealed to Nigerian security forces to show restraint.
“I say, please, the mistreatment of innocent people has to stop. This isn’t how we fix problems,” he said.
Boko Haram, which wants Islamic sharia applied across Nigeria, has claimed a series of bombings and other attacks that have killed scores of people in recent weeks. The country of 160 million is split roughly evenly between Christians and Muslims, who mostly live side by side in peace.
Styled on the Taliban, Boko Haram has become increasingly sophisticated and deadly in its methods in the past six months and widened its targets beyond attacks on police and other authority figures to include Christians.
Qasim Sufi, of the International Organization for Migration, said returnees to Chad, including many children who had been enrolled in Koranic schools in Nigeria, were fleeing soldiers targeting Boko Haram members in their villages.
“They’re all saying the same thing, that it is getting very bad in their villages,” he said.
Nigerian authorities said on Thursday arsonists suspected to be Boko Haram members had burned down seven schools in northeastern Nigeria in the past few days.