By Alexis Akwagyiram
LAGOS (Reuters) – International aid agency Mercy Corps on Wednesday suspended its operations in two of the northeastern Nigerian states worst hit by Islamist insurgents after the army closed four of its offices in the region, the organisation said.
In a separate development in the northeast, another international aid agency – Action Against Hunger – said a hostage had been executed by a group that was holding one of its employees, two drivers and three health ministry workers.
Islamic State’s West Africa branch later claimed responsibility for the July kidnapping.
The developments come days after the army closed Action Against Hunger’s office in the region after accusing it of aiding terrorist groups such as Boko Haram and Islamic State.
Northeast Nigeria has been blighted by a decade-long insurgency led by militant group Boko Haram that has killed 30,000 people and forced two million to flee their homes. The United Nations has said 7.1 million people in the region need assistance in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
“Mercy Corps is suspending operations in Borno and Yobe States, Nigeria, following the closure of four of our field offices by the Nigerian military,” said Amy Fairbairn, its head of media and communications, in a statement.
“We have not yet received an official reason from the Nigerian authorities for the closure and we are seeking to work with them to resolve this as soon as possible,” said Fairbairn, adding that Mercy Corps’ work in other parts of Nigeria would continue uninterrupted.
A military source and an aid worker at the organisation, both speaking on condition of anonymity, said the army closed the offices on Wednesday after troops said they had found 29 million naira ($94,771) in cash being transported in northeastern Borno state by a driver who said the money belonged to Mercy Corps.
Two Nigerian military spokesmen did not immediately respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment on the reason for the closure of Mercy Corps offices.
Borno is the birthplace of the insurgency and the state worst hit, with attacks intensifying over the last year primarily carried out by a Boko Haram splinter faction allied to Islamic State that broke away in 2016. Yobe state has also been badly hit by the conflict.
The hostages with ties to Action Against Hunger were abducted two months ago near the northeastern town of Damasak, in Borno.
“Action Against Hunger condemns in the strongest terms this assassination and urgently calls for the release of the hostages,” the agency said in a statement.
The aid agency closures and the latest killing come against the backdrop of a change in the military’s approach to the insurgency.
Nigerian soldiers have left many towns in the region under a new strategy of withdrawing to “super camps” that can be more easily defended against insurgents. Some security experts have expressed concerns that the areas vacated are being filled by insurgents, leaving civilians vulnerable.
A few days after forcing the closure of Action Against Hunger offices last week, the army said it will require anyone moving through three northeastern states to carry identification cards in an effort to root out Islamists.
(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram and Maiduguri Newsroom, Editing by William Maclean)