LAGOS, Nigeria (AP) — Thousands of people have fled violence in northeast Nigeria for neighboring Cameroon and Niger in recent days, the United Nations said Friday, as the frequency of attacks by Islamic extremists grows with dozens killed this week.
Villagers in several farming settlements around Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's northeast Borno state, said at least 18 people were killed in attacks by suspected Boko Haram members this week.
Another farming village south of Maiduguri, Alau, buried 19 residents Monday who were killed by Islamic extremists in a Sunday night attack that left mud and thatch homes burned to the ground and women and children wounded, according to a farmer and security official there.
Boko Haram, whose name means "Western education is forbidden," was formed in Maiduguri more than four years ago, and has since staged attacks that have killed thousands in its quest to turn Nigeria into an Islamic state. Africa's biggest oil producer and its most populous nation, with more than 160 million people, has equal numbers of Muslims predominantly in the north and Christians in the south.
Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the U.N. Refugee Agency, said Friday that recent clashes between insurgents and the Nigerian army have led to more than 4,000 people seeking refuge in Cameroon and 1,500 in Niger since mid-January.
Refugees in Cameroon, who fled from Nigeria's Banki border area, told the U.N. agency that their villages had been bombed, homes burned to the ground and several people killed.
Officials in neighboring Cameroon said a Nigerian jet dropped bombs that exploded around a Cameroonian border post earlier this month.
There are fears the Islamic uprising could spread beyond Nigeria's porous frontiers, but Edwards encouraged Nigeria's neighbors to keep their borders open: "We continue to urge states in the region to keep their borders open for Nigerians who are fleeing their country and may need international protection. We are also advising against any forced returns."
Refugees in Niger, staying in the Diffa region in the country's southeast, said they had fled a Jan. 16 mosque attack in Gashagar village that killed at least seven people, Edwards told a news conference in Geneva. Cars were burned and at least 60 shops set alight, he said.
Niger issued a decree in early December granting temporary refugee status to Nigerians who fled from any of the three states that have been under emergency rule since May 2013, the U.N. said.
"Some 37,000 people — including 8,000 Nigerians and 30,000 Niger nationals who were living in Nigeria— have been displaced," into Niger since May, Edwards said. Cameroon authorities have identified 12,428 Nigerian refugees, he said.
The Islamic extremist uprising has continued despite the state of emergency under which thousands of troops have deployed. Locals have formed vigilante groups to help combat Boko Haram, but the extremists have launched attacks that many fear are in retaliation.
Wadai Mutah said Friday that 10 people were killed and several injured on Tuesday before attackers set ablaze his entire village of Njaba, near Maiduguri. Mutah, who tended to five injured relatives at a local hospital, said eight people were killed in a neighboring village on Wednesday.
Pogu Wovi told The Associated Press that he saved himself by dragging himself into the bush, where he spent the night. "It was after the late evening meal and we were sitting outside when we began to hear gunshots echoing louder and nearer, from all directions; there was suddenly confusion, women and children crying for help," the 45-year-old said in the local Hausa language.
Last week, President Goodluck Jonathan announced a major shake-up of Nigeria's military high command, likely in an effort to strengthen the fight against Boko Haram.
Associated Press reporter Haruna Umar in Maiduguri, Nigeria, contributed to this report.