Dozens of people have been killed after a Nigerian military jet mistakenly bombed a camp where thousands of families displaced during the offensive against Boko Haram militants were sheltering.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said its staff in the densely populated settlement in the northern town of Rann had seen at least 200 wounded and 50 dead following the bombing on Tuesday and expected the death toll to rise.
“This large-scale attack on vulnerable people who have already fled from extreme violence is shocking and unacceptable,” said Dr Jean-Clément Cabrol, the aid group’s director of operations.
A Borno state government official, who was helping to coordinate the evacuation of wounded from the remote area by helicopters, said more than 100 refugees and aid workers were dead. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to reporters.
Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, expressed deep sadness and regret at “this regrettable operational mistake”.
At least two blasts were believed to have hit the site near Nigeria’s border with Cameroon, which was under the control of the Nigerian military and where a campaign against the jihadist group is being waged.
About 43,000 internally displaced people were sheltering at the camp and they, as well as aid workers and Nigerian troops, were believed to be among the dead and wounded.
The UN humanitarian air service has dispatched a helicopter with four medical personnel, 400kg of emergency medical supplies and airlifted eight Nigeria Red Cross workers injured in the bombing.
Maj Gen Lucky Irabor, a commander of the Nigerian military’s counterinsurgency operations in northeast Nigeria, told the Associated Press he had ordered the mission based on information that Boko Haram insurgents were gathering, along with geographic coordinates. It was too early to say if a tactical error had been made, he said, promising that an investigation would take place.
Hugues Robert, MSF’s head of emergencies, said staff were working to evacuate the wounded. “We have been aware of the potential risks our teams are facing in Borno state and have been extremely cautious about how we move and where we go,” he said.
“We [are] speaking here about an area that is controlled by the army fully. The whole camp is controlled by the army and no one can come in or out without being checked, so that’s a shock, as well as the fact that this was a very densely populated place that was full of civilians who already lived there and internally displaced persons who had come there.”
The tragedy is the latest to shake a region of Nigeria that the head of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) last week said continued to be gripped by crisis.
Addressing the UN security council, Stephen O’Brien said the crisis in the Lake Chad basin area – affecting Nigeria and parts of Cameroon, Chad and Niger – had grown in the past six months.
Nine million people had been in need of humanitarian assistance when he briefed the body in July, but the figure was now 10.7 million, including 8.5 million people in northeast Nigeria and 1.6 million in the north of Cameroon.
The acute need for aid assistance remained clear, Robert said, adding: “Rann was one place where the situation had been extremely bad for many months and we had been trying to gain access. When you see the levels of malnutrition and mortality in these place we have a duty to help.”
A spokesperson for the International Red Cross said: “We are deeply concerned about reported casualties among civilians and humanitarian workers in today’s airstrikes on Rann, north-east Nigeria. We are in contact with the relevant authorities to organise medical assistance and evacuations, and also to get more information on the situation in Rann.”
The Nigerian Red Cross said that six of its workers, who had been helping to bring desperately needed food to the site, were among the dead. UN helicopters were being sent to the location to help with evacuations of the wounded.
While the Nigerian military had been claiming that the war against Boko Haram was all but over, the continued threat was underlined on Monday by a twin suicide bombing at a university in the city of Maiduguri.
A video purporting to feature audio of the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, emerged this week following the bombing in which a professor and a child were reportedly killed.
The group has stepped up attacks in the past few weeks as the end of the rainy season facilitates movements in the bush.
Aid agencies have said many more people could die in addition to the more than 20,000 killed in the seven-year Islamic uprising that has driven 2.6 million people from their homes and, in some cases, across Nigeria’s borders.
Some of the nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 and freed last year have said three of their classmates were killed by air force bombardments, according to the freed girls’ parents.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010