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Nigerian Villagers Flee to Niger After Boko Haram Attack

FILE - Young girls attend a math class in January 2014 at a school in Niger's Diffa region, where more than half of the students are Nigerians who have been displaced by fighting.

The UN refugee agency reports about 50 people were killed by Boko Haram insurgents in Damassak, a town in Nigeria’s Borno State, earlier this week. The UNHCR says at least 3,000 people have fled to the Diffa region in neighboring Niger in fear of their lives.

Damassak, Nigeria
Damassak, Nigeria

Dammasak reportedly was captured by Boko Haram four days ago. The town lies just a few kilometers from the Niger border. UNHCR staff in Niger’s Diffa region report thousands of Nigerians fleeing from Boko Haram are arriving in a state of panic and desperation.

UN refugee spokesman Adrian Edwards said people are being pursued by the militants right up to the river banks.

“It is extremely dangerous," said Edwards. "People are fleeing very quickly, very fast. A lot of women, a lot of elderly, a lot of children amongst those coming across…posing real difficulties. Families separated. Children lost from their parents. People with no belongings at all in many cases. So, this is, I suppose-it is battle displacement on the one hand, but with very serious consequences obviously for everyone affected.”

Damassak is the second large attack mounted by Boko Haram close to the Nigerian-Niger border in less than two months. The first attack on the Nigerian village of Malan Fatori on Oct. 5 prompted 1,000 people to flee.

UNHCR aid workers in Diffa say people are still arriving in Niger from Nigeria. Most are waiting for boats to cross the river separating the two countries, while others try to swim across to safety. Edwards said local inhabitants report having seen some people drown.

“The new arrivals are telling us that many civilians were killed during the attack on Damassak, especially young men, but the insurgents were also shooting at women and children," he said. "Some said they believe the attack was executed in reprisal for the enrollment of young men in self-defense groups, which have been formed to fight the insurgents.”

According to the UNHCR, regular influxes of Nigerian refugees and returning Niger nationals are placing a heavy burden on Diffa, a remote and economically underdeveloped region. It said the remoteness of the region makes it very difficult for aid agencies to provide assistance to the growing number of refugees.

Edwards said UNHCR, other agencies, and the local community are providing plastic sheeting and blankets to help people put up temporary shelters for protection against the night-time cold.

The authorities in Niger say more than 100,000 people have fled to Niger since May 2013, when the Nigerian government declared a state of emergency in the northeastern states. It says more than 30,000 people have fled to the area from Boko Haram attacks in the past two months alone.