Smoke rises from a burnt out shelter at a camp for displaced people in Rann, Nigeria, Tuesday Jan. 17, 2017 (Photos: Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières in Nigeria)
A Nigerian fighter jet searching for Boko Haram members on Tuesday, January 17 accidentally bombed a camp for displaced people who had fled the militants, killing dozens of camp residents and at least six humanitarian workers, and wounding numerous others. The incident happened at about 9:00 a.m. (08:00 GMT) in Rann, in the far north of Borno state, the epicenter of the jihadists’ insurgency, as food was being distributed to displaced people.
Government officials could not provide an exact death toll, saying they were focused on treating the wounded. Doctors Without Borders, the medical charity, said its teams in Rann had counted 52 dead and 200 wounded as they tried to provide first aid and stabilize patients who were awaiting evacuation. But there was little hope of evacuation until Wednesday, raising the prospect that many seriously wounded victims of the attack would die overnight as ill-equipped rescuers stood by helplessly.
The Nigerian military has been locked in a fierce battle with Boko Haram fighters for years as they rampage through the country’s northeast, carrying out attacks on military positions and, more recently, frequent suicide bombings that have killed hundreds. In the government’s zest for rooting out the militants, civilians have frequently ended up detained, hurt or dead.
Among the dead in the bombing were six workers from a local Red Cross organization, said a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, adding that 13 were wounded. Two soldiers were also wounded. Military officials said local workers for Doctors Without Borders had also been wounded, but the group could not confirm that.
“This large-scale attack on vulnerable people who have already fled from extreme violence is shocking and unacceptable,” said Dr. Jean-Clément Cabrol, the director of operations for Doctors Without Borders. “The safety of civilians must be respected. We are urgently calling on all parties to ensure the facilitation of medical evacuations by air or road for survivors who are in need of emergency care.”
On Tuesday afternoon, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria acknowledged the military error on his official Twitter account.
Mr. Buhari has said repeatedly that Boko Haram has been defeated, even as the group has carried out marketplace bombings in Nigeria, Cameroon and elsewhere in recent weeks. This week, two suicide bombers — one of them a girl about 12 years old — detonated explosives at the University of Maiduguri, where students and teachers had gathered for morning prayer. The blast killed four people, including Aliyu Usman Mani, 60, a veterinary medicine professor and father of two, and forced the university to postpone exams. The bombing also came as the United States is considering selling the Nigerian government warplanes, despite objections from some officials in Congress over the military’s past record of human rights abuses.
The violence has uprooted more than two million people from their homes in the region. Some of them wind up in camps like the one at Rann, where 20,000 people in the past six months have fled to escape Boko Haram’s marauders.
The small, densely packed camp includes people living in an old schoolhouse, mud-brick homes and other structures, some of which were smashed in the bombing, said Hugues Robert, the Nigeria program manager for Doctors Without Borders.
The camp has been largely inaccessible for months, he said, and the charity’s workers had reached Rann for the first time only in December. Workers had returned on Saturday to establish a malnutrition screening clinic. On Tuesday, that clinic was converted into a triage center as the wounded victims of the bombing, some with grievous injuries, jammed under the tents, lying in the soil to await treatment from the small number of medical professionals there, who were equipped to treat hunger, not blast wounds.
Rann is known as a hotbed of Boko Haram activity. The military had cleared the area of militants just this spring, stranding 3,000 people without food or water, according to local news reports. But with the end of a rainy season that had limited mobility, Boko Haram has regained a foothold. Late last month, a military post near Rann was attacked in a battle that lasted three hours, an indication of the strength and firepower of militants in the area.
Before the bombing on Tuesday, the Nigerian military had been informed that fighters were amassing to attack a military post nearby, according to a Western diplomat who requested anonymity in talking about security issues. Armed with geographic coordinates of where they thought the fighters were assembled, the air force launched the bombing strike but hit the camp in error.
At a news conference in Maiduguri on Tuesday, Maj. Gen. Lucky Irabor acknowledged the mistake, calling it “disturbing.” In a statement issued by his spokesman, Mr. Buhari pleaded for calm, calling the bombing “a regrettable operational mistake.”
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