The number of children used by the militant group Boko Haram in suicide attacks in Nigeria and surrounding countries rose sharply in 2015, UNICEF reported Tuesday.
In a report coinciding with the second anniversary of the Boko Haram abduction of 276 young girls in the village of Chibok, Nigeria, UNICEF said suicide attacks involving children from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger rose from four in 2014 to 44 in 2015, a 10-fold increase.
"Let us be clear, these children are victims, not perpetrators," said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF regional director. "Deceiving children and forcing them to carry out deadly acts has been one of the most horrific aspects of the violence in Nigeria and in neighboring countries. As suicide attacks involving children become commonplace, some communities are starting to see children as threats to their safety. This suspicion towards children can have destructive consequences; how can a community rebuild itself when it is casting out its own sisters, daughters and mothers?"
The Boko Haram campaign to create an Islamist caliphate in Nigeria has, since 2009, displaced nearly 1.3 million children and closed more than 1,800 schools. As military forces from Nigeria and other countries have slowly contained the insurgents by reclaiming territory in village-by-village patrols, a weakened Boko Haram has been reduced to hit-and-run suicide attacks on selected civilian targets.
The report added that in the past two years, nearly one in five suicide bombers in the impacted countries were children, and 75 percent of those were girls. Children who escaped from Boko Haram captivity are regarded as security threats, and those who were victims of sexual assault often encounter discrimination and stigma in their villages and in displaced persons camps.
Some of the girls in the Chibok abduction escaped, and in March, Cameroon troops arrested a girl, 15, with bombs strapped to her body. She said she was among those taken.
An April 2015 assault by Nigerian troops with the help of airstrikes by fighter planes on a Boko Haram stronghold in Nigeria's Sambisa Forest where the Chibok captives were believed to be, did not find the remaining 219 girls.
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