Aid groups in Niger evacuated Western staff from some regions due to security threats, a move that risks undermining relief efforts at the heart of a food crisis, said aid workers.
The staff are being pulled out of Maradi, in the south, and Zinder, in the east, regions at the heart of a food crisis that relief organisations are struggling to tackle after poor rains last year left millions short of food.
“I can confirm that the (UN’s) World Food Programme has told its staff based in Maradi and Zinder to evacuate and return to Niamey due to security reasons,” Vigno Hounkanli, a WFP spokesperson, told Reuters on Monday.
There was no specific information on the threats. The evacuation comes days after WFP said it had launched an operation to feed 670,000 young children and their families in Niger, where 8 million people are going hungry this year.
According to the United Nations, Niger is at the peak of the lean season, with food stocks empty and still several weeks before the October harvests. Two other aid workers, who asked not to be named, said all UN agencies and charities were pulling Western staff out of the region for fear of kidnappings by groups linked to al Qaeda.
One said the evacuation would have a “massive” impact on operations as thousands of severely malnourished children were being treated by aid workers every week. “Experienced aid workers were thin on the ground anyway and the numbers needing assistance are huge. This work can’t be done remotely,” the aid worker added.
Cyprien Fabre, a spokesman of European Commission’s humanitarian aid arm (ECHO), said that the EU was worried about the situation but aid groups now have more African expatriates in their ranks, so some programmes could be kept running.
Although there was no specific information on the threats and the region is far to the south of the northern desert zones in which al Qaeda’s North African wing generally operates, the group has used local bandits or rebels to kidnap foreigners elsewhere in the region.
It has also publicly sought to link up with Islamists just over the border, in northern Nigeria. The US embassy in Niger on Friday updated its travel warning for Niger, strongly advising its citizens to avoid all travel to the Maradi region.
The Islamists claim to have killed a Frenchman seized in northern Niger in April, while two Spanish aid workers kidnapped in Mauritania last year are being held by a faction of the group in the Sahara.
Analysts say revenues from ransoms and involvement in the drugs trade in the region are providing funds and could lure recruits from among poverty-stricken populations.