At least 65,000 people fled the north-eastern Nigerian town of Damasak following a series of attacks by an armed group, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said.
Fighters from the so-called Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) stormed the town in Borno state three times in a week to strike a military garrison, burning homes and a UN office, and killing at least 12 people, the UNHCR said on Friday.
In the latest violence on Wednesday, the fighters attacked the garrison before being forced back into the town itself, military sources and residents said.
“Following the latest attack on Wednesday 14 April, the third in seven days, up to 80 percent of the town’s population were forced to flee,” UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch said.
Some have fled towards the regional capital, Maiduguri, and other nearby towns while others have crossed the border into Niger’s Diffa region, itself vulnerable to violence from armed groups.
“Due to insecurity, however, humanitarian access is increasingly challenging in many parts of Nigeria’s Borno State, including for UNHCR staff, who were forced to temporarily relocate out of Damasak in the past seven days,” Baloch said.
Jens Laerke, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told the same briefing that aid operations had been temporarily suspended in the area since Sunday because of the insecurity.
“The situation on the ground is extremely critical and if this continues it will be impossible, maybe for longer periods of time, for us to deliver aid to those who desperately need it,” he said.
Laerke added that humanitarian workers appeared to be targets, amid reports of house-to-house searches for aid workers and the burning of their offices.
The incidents mark the latest violence in the Lake Chad basin area which in recent years has uprooted some 3.3 million people, the refugee agency said.
Damasak is host to one of the military’s so-called “super camps” – fortified garrisons the army has set up in an attempt to better defend against attacks.
Critics and residents say the strategy to close smaller bases and pull back into larger camps has left armed groups freer to roam unchallenged in rural areas.
Due to worsening security in the region, humanitarian workers are struggling to provide aid, with the number of people requiring urgent assistance expected to rise to 8.7 million this year.
ISWAP, which split from the armed group Boko Haram in 2016, has become a dominant threat in Nigeria, attacking soldiers and bases while killing and kidnapping civilians.