Surge in children being used for Boko Haram suicide bombings
Militant Islamist group is forcing more and more children to carry out deadly attacks, says new report
The use of children in suicide bombings by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram has surged this year, according to the UN's children's agency.
In the first three months of this year 27 children have been used in suicide attacks in the Lake Chad region, which spans Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.
Unicef says that in the same period last year there were nine cases. In 2016 as a whole, a total of 30 children were used in attacks.
Nearly 80 per cent of the 117 suicide attacks since 2014 have used girls.
One 16-year-old girl from Chad lost her legs after Boko Haram drugged her and forced her to take part in an attempted suicide attack on a market. She survived but was rejected by her family out of fear of stigma.
"These children are victims, not perpetrators. Forcing or deceiving them into committing such horrific acts is reprehensible," said Unicef's Marie-Pierre Poirier, quoted on Sky News.
The sight of children at checkpoints and inside markets is now sparking fears among the public at large. This led to the detention last year of 1,500 young people in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
Unicef is also concerned that children are being held by the Nigerian military for alleged association with fighters from Boko Haram.
Earlier this week Nigeria's military released 593 people, including children, after clearing them of having ties with Boko Haram, Al Jazeera reports.
Boko Haram's campaign to create an Islamic state is now in its eighth year. It has claimed more than 20,000 lives.
Its kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014 led to international outrage, sparking the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. Three years on, at least 195 girls are still in captivity.
In 2014 Boko Haram declared a caliphate in northeastern Nigeria but by 2016 the Nigerian army had recaptured most of that territory.