An air strike by Niger’s army has killed 14 displaced people who were mistaken for jihadists in the restive southeast where Boko Haram Islamists have staged regular attacks, regional officials said Thursday.
The victims were farmers who had fled the area around the village of Abadam on the Nigerian border due to the raging insurgency. They were killed in an air strike Wednesday as they returned to check on their crops, officials said.
Abadam lies within an evacuated no-go zone which is only accessible with prior authorisation and officials said military personnel assumed they must have been Boko Haram fighters, given their location.
“There have unfortunately been 14 deaths — two Nigeriens and 12 Nigerians,” Yahaya Godi, secretary general of the Diffa regional authority, told local radio in the capital Niamey.
“Abadam is in a no-entry zone and so all movements inside are regarded as those of Boko Haram,” he said.
“It was in order to avoid attacks that the plane did not hesitate with its bombardments. That’s why there was this error. The people violated the ban, they left Diffa in order to do agricultural work without informing the people they were supposed to.”
The plane “could not distinguish” between Boko Haram and civilians, he said.
Military authorities in Diffa were not immediately reachable for comment.
DOZENS OF CHILDREN KIDNAPPED
Diffa has suffered a string of Boko Haram attacks since 2015 against both military targets and civilians as the insurgency spilled across national borders.
A local journalist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army had been “on edge” after two recent attacks in the local area.
News of the civilian deaths came just two days after Diffa authorities said Boko Haram had kidnapped 37 children and slit the throats of nine other people in the village of Ngalewa.
And a week ago two women detonated suicide bombs in the nearby village of Kabalewa, killing two people.
Niger authorities evacuated civilians from the border zone in May 2015 as a four-nation military force — made up of troops from Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon — began a ground and aerial offensive against Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region.
The evacuation was unpopular with many villagers who were forced into camps for displaced people. Some have been returning to tend to their crops, despite the entry ban.
The Komadougou river which serves as a natural border between Niger and Nigeria runs through Abadam.
The village had already suffered tragedy in February 2015 when a strike by what authorities said was an “unidentified” plane hit a funeral ceremony, killing 36 people and leaving 27 others injured. Residents fled the village soon after.
Diffa is home to around 600,000 people. Some 300,000 people displaced by the violence have taken refuge in the region, which was already grappling with grinding poverty.