GENEVA – The U.N. refugee agency reports more than 1,000 people have fled a site in western Niger following an attack by unidentified armed men on Sunday. The group — a mix of Malian refugees, displaced and local Niger nationals — has arrived in the town of Telemces, some 27 kilometers away.
The attack, which occurred about 70 kilometers from the Malian border, left two Malian refugee leaders and a local host community leader dead. The U.N. refugee agency says it fears more deadly assaults will occur in this volatile region.
The agency said there has been a sharp increase in attacks in the past few months in the Liptako Gourma region where the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger intersect. UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told VOA armed groups operating in the area are deliberately targeting local communities to drive people further inland in Niger.
“It is clear that this is an area where they see the possibility of being able to use the border area between the three countries and to operate with impunity,” Mahecic said. “Obviously, that is why it is so important that there is a response to this.”
While security is important, Mahecic said it also is important to take into account the huge humanitarian and displacement needs in the region.
Militant Islamist groups and armed criminal gangs operating in the Sahel have terrorized the civilian population for years, creating a huge displacement crisis. The UNHCR reports more than three million people are displaced in the region, including an estimated 820,000 refugees.
Mahecic said the UNHCR, along with partners and local authorities, are providing immediate aid to those fleeing, especially water so people do not die of thirst in the desert heat. He said water also is needed to help fight COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“Despite violent attacks and insecurity severely limiting humanitarian access to those in need of protection and assistance, we are stepping up our response in Niger, focusing especially on providing shelter, education and programs to prevent and address sexual and gender-based violence,” Mahecic said.
The UNHCR has condemned what it calls the assassination of the Malian refugee leaders. It is calling on all sides to respect civilian lives. The agency says those responsible for these crimes must be brought to justice to deter others from committing similar acts.