Nearly 6,000 people who fled jihadist violence in 2015 have returned home to the town of Baroua in southeast Niger's troubled Diffa region, local authorities said Monday.
They are the first group to go home as part of a operation to return people to 19 towns and villages in the region, which has been ravaged by jihadists from neighboring Nigeria.
"It is a voluntary return of 1,187 households totaling 5,935 people" who returned on Sunday to Baroua, a town of some 15,000 near Lake Chad, said Yahaya Godi, a top official in the Diffa region.
Between 8,000 and 10,000 people are expected to return to Baroua in total.
State television showed images of around 20 trucks loaded with food, water, beds and building materials, with the returnees perched on top, arriving in Baroua.
Diffa is home to 300,000 refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) who have fled attacks by the Nigeria-based jihadist group Boko Haram and its breakaway faction Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), according to the UN.
Niger's government gave the go-ahead for the return of IDPs "given positive changes in the (security) situation on the ground," said Diffa regional governor Issa Lemine, who was in Baroua to welcome the returnees.
Niger's security forces are working to ramp up protection for returning residents, he added.
Most of the IDPs had fled to other parts of the region, notably the city of Diffa itself.
Some 120,000 refugees from jihadist attacks in northeastern Nigeria are housed in camps around the Diffa region.
ISWAP has become a dominant threat in Nigeria, attacking soldiers and bases while killing and kidnapping civilians.
Baroua "is in ruins and we will have to start from scratch," a local elected official told AFP.
Health clinics, drinking water distribution facilities, schools and mosques are "all run down", he added.
Godi said people who are still reluctant to return will be encouraged by the stepped-up security as well as rebuilt infrastructure.
And the government will hire returnees to work on rebuilding projects in Baroua.
Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum, elected in February, campaigned on a promise to return all refugees and displaced people to their homes by the end of 2021.
The former French colony, which by the yardstick of the UN's Human Development Index is the poorest country in the world, also houses nearly 60,000 people who fled after the jihadist insurgency erupted in neighboring Mali in 2012.