DAKAR (Senegal) • As it torments West Africa, Boko Haram is increasingly turning to children to carry out its crimes.
One in five suicide bombers deployed by Boko Haram in the past two years has been a child, usually a girl, according to a report released on Tuesday by Unicef.
Boko Haram used 44 children in suicide attacks last year, compared with only four in 2014, the report found. The youngest bomber so far was thought to have been eight years old.
The report seeks to quantify one of the most chilling elements of Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group that has assaulted the Lake Chad region of Africa for years with thievery, beheadings, kidnappings and the torching of entire villages.
The group has killed thousands of people and caused a food crisis, leaving the area hungry and in tatters.
Mr Toby Lanzer, UN humanitarian coordinator for that region, said Boko Haram's use of children as suicide bombers "really beggars belief".
"To me, that's the epitome of evil," he told reporters during a briefing at the UN headquarters in New York about his recent trip to north-eastern Nigeria. "I cannot think of anything more horrifying."
Last year, the Nigerian military engaged in a new offensive against Boko Haram. The initiative has been joined by four other nations in the region as well as the United States, which is offering intelligence and other assistance.
Militants who once controlled numerous villages have been scattered. Unable to control as much terrain as in the past, the group has deployed suicide bombers to markets, mosques and even camps where people fleeing Boko Haram have taken refuge.
According to Unicef, the overall number of suicide bombings increased from 32 in 2014 to 151 last year. In 2015, 89 attacks were carried out in Nigeria, 39 in Cameroon, 16 in Chad and seven in Niger. Cameroon has had the highest number of attacks involving children.
Government and defence officials in Cameroon have said most of the attackers there have been girls aged 13 to 15. People who have escaped Boko Haram have reported a systematic programme for training women and girls to be bombers.
The report also said that more than 1.3 million children had been forced from their homes. Another report released on Tuesday, from Human Rights Watch, focused on how Boko Haram has devastated education in some areas.
It said that between 2009 and 2015, attacks by the group destroyed more than 910 schools and forced at least 1,500 more to close.
The group has abducted more than 2,000 civilians, many of them women and girls, including large groups of students.
NEW YORK TIMES