Northwest Nigeria violence drives 20,000 into Niger since April -UNHCR

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GENEVA, May 28 (Reuters) - Violence in northwest Nigeria has forced around 20,000 refugees to seek safety in neighbouring Niger since April, the United Nations refugee agency said on Tuesday.

Military, police and state security forces have been deployed to northwest Nigeria in recent months to tackle criminal gangs behind a spate of killings and kidnappings.

Security forces are already stretched tackling the decade-long insurgency by Islamist group Boko Haram in the northeast.

"This is not Boko Haram related in any way," UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told a media briefing. "People are reportedly fleeing due to multiple reasons, including clashes between farmers and herders of different ethnic groups, vigilantism, as well as kidnappings for ransom," he said.

He said people were fleeing to Niger, which lies to the north, due to the surge in crime in the Nigerian states of Sokoto and Zamfara.

Zamfara is the state worst hit by the uptick of violence that has killed dozens of people since the start of the year. The surge began last year, when it prompted the deployment of the air force and 1,000 security personnel to the state.

Nigerian authorities in April suspended mining in Zamfara amid concerns that illegal miners were connected to a rise in banditry.

(Reporting by Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by Jon Boyle)

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