Nigeria’s election next month is a factor behind the sharp increase in attacks by Boko Haram Islamist militants in the north of the country, the U.S. State Department said on Tuesday.
Spokeswoman Marie Harf said, however, that the February 14 presidential election should go forward despite the violence, which the United Nations and human rights groups say has forced about 20,000 Nigerians to flee to neighbouring countries in recent weeks.
“There has been a sharp escalation in the number of reported casualties,” Harf told a daily briefing. “We do believe the election is a factor.”
Harf said Boko Haram previously used events such as elections to stir up tensions. The election is expected to be a close contest between President Goodluck Jonathan and his leading challenger Muhammadu Buhari.
“Boko Haram has tended to, particularly around something like an election, use political issues or sensitivities to try to enflame tensions,” she said. “We have seen that as one of their tactics and that is why it is so important to move forward with the election, because we believe it’s important.”
Boko Haram’s insurgency began in 2009, but the number and scale of the attacks has risen sharply since last year after the government imposed emergency rule in three worst-hit states in northern Nigeria.
Amnesty International has said Boko Haram may have killed some 2,000 people around January 3 in Baga in northern Nigeria. Harf said it was hard to independently verify that figure.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a mosque in Gombe on Tuesday, killing at least two other people and wounding 14 during prayers, a Red Cross official and witnesses said.
Gombe is just outside the main area of operations of Boko Haram, a violent jihadist group trying to carve out an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, and has been attacked several times in the last few months.
“We were holding prayers when we heard a loud explosion,” witness Musa Usman told Reuters by phone.
“We rushed out of the mosque. There were so many people injured on the ground.”
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Growing insecurity linked to Islamist militants is a major problem for President Goodluck Jonathan a month before polls in which he faces a rival, Muhammadu Buhari, seen as tough on security when he was a military ruler in the 1980s.
Red Cross official Umar Ahmed, who was on the scene of the blast, said the bomber and two other people were killed. An official at the hospital to where the casualties were brought, Ibrahim Garba, said the emergency ward was treating 14 people for blast wounds. Some were in critical condition, he said.