DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tough counter-insurgency action in Niger after cross-border attacks by Boko Haram Islamist militants from Nigeria is worsening hunger and poverty in the arid southeast of the country, aid agencies said on Thursday.
Niamey declared an emergency in the state of Diffa after a February attack by Boko Haram. Security forces have conducted house-to-house searches and arrests, banned motorbikes and restricted cross-border trade to deter the insurgents.
Karl Steinacker, Niger representative for the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), said the counter-insurgency emergency measures were proving more harmful to the local population than the potential threat from Boko Haram.
"It's a real misery. It seems like heavy-handed counter insurgency is creating havoc down in that area," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Boko Haram, which wants to carve out an Islamic caliphate in northern Nigeria and neighboring states, recently expanded its activities into Niger, Cameroon and Chad for the first time since launching its insurgency in 2009.
It has killed over 6,000 people in 337 incidents in the region since January 2014, the vast majority in Nigeria, displacing some 1.5 million people, the United Nations has said.
A regional military force of troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger has increased security operations especially in the insurgent stronghold around Lake Chad, a freshwater lake that all four countries share.
"The real problem in Diffa is not Boko Haram, but the repression of Boko Haram," Steinacker said, speaking by telephone from Niamey. He said there had been only one major Boko Haram attack on Niger in two months.
"Motorbikes are the backbone of the transport system in south Niger, and the consequences of banning them are extremely negative. Traders can't get to markets, students can't go to school, the sick can't get to health posts," he said.
Niger government officials were not immediately available for comment.
Jean Bosco Niyonzima of the International Medical Corp, who has just carried out a humanitarian assessment of the flood- and drought-prone Diffa region, said food prices and healthcare consistently ranked in the top three concerns of residents.
"The people we spoke to recently in some communities in the Diffa region told us that 2 kilos of rice in the past cost 1500 cfa ($2.50), but now costs 2,700 cfa, almost double," Niyonzima said by telephone from Niamey.
"Many others, including pregnant mothers, cannot get the healthcare they need. Over 50 percent of the population lives more than 5 km away from the nearest health post," he added.
Steinacker said easing emergency measures would allow people to access markets and healthcare facilities and enable aid workers to reach local communities, which would help local people as well as refugees who have fled Boko Haram attacks.
(Reporting by Misha Hussain; Editing by Tim Pearce)