Nigerian army jets in pursuit of Boko Haram militants mistakenly bombed a camp for displaced people in north-eastern Borno state, killing at least 52 people and wounding 120, Medecins Sans Frontieres said.
The bombing killed six Nigerian Red Cross staff and volunteers, while 14 others with the group were wounded, including nine in critical condition, Andronicus Adeyemo, secretary-general of the Nigerian Red Cross, said. A Nigerian military official earlier confirmed the bombing without providing a number of casualties.
MSF said the strike occurred in Rann in Borno state, the epicentre of the extremist group’s seven-year-long bid to create an Islamic caliphate. Nigerian general Lucky Irabor, a regional military commander, located the incident at Kala Balge, a district that includes Rann.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who has pledged to end the militant group’s seven-year insurgency, described the incident as a “regrettable operational mistake” and appealed for calm.
Boko Haram wants to impose its version of Islamic law on Africa’s most populous country of more than 180 million people. Nigeria is almost evenly split between a mainly Muslim north and a predominantly Christian south.
“This large-scale attack on vulnerable people who have already fled extreme violence is shocking and unacceptable,” Jean-Clement Cabrol, director of operations at MSF, said. “The safety of civilians must be respected.”
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said the deaths “underline the importance of protecting civilians in complex humanitarian emergencies.”
The air strike came amid an offensive against Boko Haram by Nigeria’s military over the last few weeks. President Buhari said last month a key camp in the group’s Sambisa forest base in Borno state had fallen. The presidency also said the air strike occurred during the “final phase of mopping up insurgents in the northeast”.
The Boko Haram insurgency has killed more than 15,000 people since 2010 and forced some two million to flee their homes, many of whom have moved to camps for internally displaced people.
The group has stepped up attacks in recent weeks as the end of the rainy season has enabled its fighters to move more easily in the bush.
A video featuring an audio recording purporting to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, which was posted on social media late on Monday, said the group was behind twin suicide bombings at a university earlier that day which killed two and injured 17 others.
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