The Nigerian military raided a United Nations base early Friday in a city often targeted by suicide bombers.
The raid could add tension to the relationship between the two institutions as each struggles to respond to an eight-year-old war with Boko Haram.
About 5 a.m. on Friday, soldiers entered a tent camp housing United Nations workers in Maiduguri, the birthplace of the Islamist militancy, and searched it for about three hours, a statement from the United Nations said.
The camp is a base for some of the dozens of organizations providing food, water and shelter for nearly seven million people who have been left homeless or without basic necessities in the wake of the war. United Nations officials said they did not know the reason for the raid.
The United Nations grounded flights, which are used for humanitarian missions, for a day on Friday, and some other aid organizations in the city said they were locked down, with workers staying in their quarters.
“The humanitarian crisis in Nigeria’s northeast is one of the most severe in the world today,” Edward Kallon, the agency’s humanitarian coordinator for Nigeria, said in a statement. “I am extremely concerned that these actions could be detrimental to the critical work that is being carried out every day to support the most vulnerable in the region, and I call upon the government of Nigeria to provide clarification.”
On Friday afternoon, the Nigerian military released a statement saying that the raid had no specific target.
Soldiers have been raiding various areas inside and outside Maiduguri to search for bomb-making materials and insurgents and, acting on a tip, raided the area of the United Nations camp and 30 houses nearby, according to the military statement.
The camp “did not carry a U.N. designation,” according to the statement from the military. No arrests were made during the raids.
“The command wishes to assure the general public that these operations are being conducted to safeguard lives and properties but not targeted at any individual or group,” the statement said.
Friday’s raid triggered numerous rumors, including one that Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, had been arrested at the United Nations camp. It was circulated so widely that the governor of Borno State called for the arrest of a man thought to have originated the rumour, a lawyer and political operative from an opposition party.
Nigeria has been in a state of political anxiety for weeks as it awaits the return of President Muhammadu Buhari, who travelled to London in May for medical treatment for a mysterious illness. His absence has led to arguments over who should replace him if his condition worsened. It has also revived separatist movements that were largely kept at bay during recent years of political stability.
The United Nations was not allowed to operate in war-torn areas of Nigeria until the battle with Boko Haram had been going on for a few years. The humanitarian crisis has pushed people into camps lacking sanitation and ample food and water supplies. Some parts of the region have experienced famine and others are teetering on the brink.
Nigeria has said repeatedly that it has defeated Boko Haram, a group of insurgents that has carried out kidnappings, bombings and murders throughout the northeast portion of Nigeria, as well as in areas across the borders of Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
The military has made major progress in beating back the group, raiding its forest hide-outs and seizing terrain once controlled by militants. The government scored victories by negotiating the release of dozens of prominent kidnapping victims, schoolgirls taken from the village of Chibok in an incident that gained worldwide attention.
To secure the girls’ return, the Nigerian government released several top Boko Haram commanders who had been detained. Many other girls from the school in Chibok remain missing.
Boko Haram in recent months has sent a stream of suicide bombers — many of them women and girls — into Maiduguri, the busy capital of Borno State. They have targeted camps of people who have fled their homes to seek refuge from the militants, as well as markets and the city’s main university.
A recent raid on a group of military-escorted university professors heading to prospect for new oil reserves in the area killed as many as 50 people, including some of the professors. Other professors were taken hostage. At first the military said all the professors had been rescued, but it later corrected that error.
In January, the military pursuing Boko Haram mistakenly bombed a refugee camp in the village of Rann, killing at least 90 people and wounding 150, according to a report from Doctors Without Borders, which was operating in the area at the time.