There has been an "alarming spike" in bombings carried out by insurgent group Boko Haram using women and girls bearing explosives, putting children in danger of being seen as threats, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said Tuesday.
"Children are not instigating these suicide attacks; they are used intentionally by adults in the most horrific way," Jean Gough, UNICEF's representative in Nigeria, said in a news release. "They are first and foremost victims — not perpetrators."
The total number of reported attacks described as suicide bombings in northeastern Nigeria — where Boko Haram is seeking to carve out a separate state to be governed in accordance with its interpretation of Islamic law — has jumped to 27 in the first five months of this year, compared to 26 all of last year, UNICEF said. Of those 53 incidents, UNICEF said women and children were reportedly used to carry out nearly three-quarters of them.
One of the most recent attacks happened less than two weeks ago, when witnesses said a girl about 12 years old detonated an explosive under her clothes, killing seven and injuring 31 at a bus station in Damaturu in northeastern Nigeria.
Meanwhile, UNICEF said girls approximately between 7 and 17 years old have been used to carry explosives in nine bombings since July 2014. The girls’ identities and exact ages have not been verified, UNICEF added.
The agency said it is concerned children will increasingly be perceived as "potential threats," putting them in danger of retaliation and jeopardizing their return home.
It's not known how many thousands of children and women have been kidnapped by Boko Haram, with new abductions reported every week.
UNICEF said it estimates that 743,000 children have been uprooted by the nearly six-year-old Boko Haram uprising, with as many as 10,000 separated from their families in the chaos.
Nigeria's military recently reported rescuing some 700 women and children from Boko Haram during a weeks-long offensive earlier this month to oust the armed separatists from camps in their Sambisa Forest stronghold.
Reporters have seen only 275 of those freed taken to the safety of a refugee camp on May 2, and then reportedly flown to an unidentified military facility last week, supposedly to undergo more trauma counseling.
Seventy percent of that group are children under age 5, with 63 unable to identify relatives, the National Emergency Management Agency said Sunday.
Last week, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Peter Maurer, expressed alarm at "the horrific mental and physical scars" inflicted by Boko Haram violence.
"Whole communities have fled their villages and endured unimaginable suffering. Traumatized people, without homes, belongings, income and education for their children," he said, adding the massive humanitarian needs demand serious international attention.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press