Soldiers in north-east of the West African country shelled suspected camps of Islamic extremists, killing at least 21 people, a security official said Friday.
The fighting was in the Sambisa Forest Reserve, just south of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, which soldiers previously raided on the hunt for fighters belonging to the extremist network known as Boko Haram. Meanwhile, gunmen launched an assault on the hometown of one of Nigeria’s former military rulers hundreds of kilometres away, attacking a police station and banks.
Soldiers started the attack on Sambisa Forest Reserve on Thursday, having previously converged in the area in advance of President Goodluck Jonathan’s state of emergency decree affecting three states in the nation’s north-east, a security official said. The shelling killed at least 21 suspected Islamic extremists, the official said. There was no independent confirmation of the assault or casualties.
“We are not going to leave the forest until it’s over,” the official said, referring to the emergency rule.
The official spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak publicly about the ongoing military operation. Brigadier General Chris Olukolade, a military spokesperson based in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, could not be immediately reached for comment on Friday.
In a related development, mobile phone service returned on Friday morning to parts of north-east Nigeria after being cut on Thursday. The security official told the AP that the service cut came on the orders of Nigeria’s government and security forces as soldiers moved into the north-east to begin operations. The official said service likely would be shut off again.
Mobile phones Mobile phones have become the only real communication device in Nigeria for both voice calls and the internet, as the state-run telephone company collapsed years ago. By cutting off service at towers, the military could stop extremists from receiving warnings or intelligence ahead of their operations. Authorities said on Thursday they had no information about the service cut-off or refused to comment.
Nigeria’s military and security forces have tracked fighters by their mobile phone signals in the past as well, prompting extremists from Boko Haram to attack mobile phone towers in the region.
Under the president’s directive, soldiers have ultimate control over security matters in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. Over the last few days, witnesses and AP journalists have seen convoys of soldiers in trucks and buses moving through the region, as well as trucks carrying armoured personnel carriers. Jet fighters also have been seen flying low over Yola, the capital of Adamawa state.
This new military campaign comes on top of a previous massive deployment of soldiers and police to the region. That deployment failed to stop violence by Islamic extremists, who have killed more than 1 600 people since 2010, according to an AP count.
Jonathan’s emergency decree, declared on Tuesday, allows civilian governments to remain in place. Adamawa state governor Murtala Nyako, who belongs to Jonathan’s ruling People’s Democratic Party, criticised the president’s decision in a radio address on Thursday night.
“I believe that the declaration has been a shock to the people of the state and others,” Nyako said. “True, this state has witnessed a few criminal activities by armed hoodlums in the last few years, but so [have] other states in the federation.”
That could be seen on Thursday night in Daura, a rural town in Katsina state that’s the home of former military ruler and perennial presidential candidate general Muhammadu Buhari. There, far from the states under emergency rule, gunmen attacked a police station and at least two banks, witnesses said. Police officials declined to immediately comment about the attack on Friday. – Sapa-AP M&G
Boko Haram crisis: Nigeria air raids ‘kill militants’
The BBC’s Will Ross said Nigerian troops will have difficulty flushing out Boko Haram militants in urban areas
At least 30 militants have been killed during air raids on their training camps in north-eastern Nigeria, officials say.
An army spokesman said jets and helicopter gunships had been used to attack several camps.
He told the BBC that a plane had been hit by anti-aircraft fire but had managed to return to base.
States of emergency were declared this week in three north-eastern states hit by Boko Haram’s Islamist insurgency.
Nigerian forces are trying to regain control in the states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno.
Meanwhile, explosions and gunfire have been heard overnight in Katsina state.
Residents have told the BBC’s Hausa service that banks, police stations and prisons were destroyed in the town of Daura, near the border with Niger.
Every camp is under attack” Brig Gen Chris Olukolade Military spokesman
They said they had seen the bodies of five members of the security forces and three militants, but there has been no official confirmation of casualties.
Mobile phone networks were not functioning in many parts of north-east Nigeria on Thursday.
A security official told the AP news agency that the mobile phone service had been shut down during the military operation.
Militants have previously attacked mobile phone masts in the area in an effort to disrupt communications.
Residents staying inside
Some of the camps hit by air raids were in the Sambisa Game Reserve, about 70km (45 miles) south of the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, where the militants first emerged in 2009, said Nigerian military spokesman Brig Gen Chris Olukolade.
Boko Haram: Timeline of terror
- 2002: Founded
- 2009: Hundreds killed when Maiduguri police stations stormed; leader Mohammed Yusuf captured and killed
- Dec 2010: Bombed Jos, killing 80 people; blamed for New Year’s Eve attack on Abuja barracks
- Jun-Aug 2011: Bomb attacks on Abuja police HQ and UN building
- Dec 2011: Multiple bomb attacks on Christmas Day kill dozens
- Jan 2012: Wave of violence across north-east Nigeria
- April 2012: Deadly Easter church attack in Kaduna; ThisDay newspaper offices bombed
- February 2013: French family kidnapped in Cameroon
- May 2013: Heavily armed incursion into Bama town
He told the BBC that 30 militants had been killed since the latest offensive began on Wednesday.
There is no independent confirmation of the number of deaths.
The aim is to “destroy [Boko Haram] bases, apprehend as many of them as possible and bring them to justice”, Brig Gen Olukolade said.
“It is not just Sambisa, every camp is under attack,” the Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.
In January, the military said it had deployed helicopter gunships to destroy Boko Haram camps in the reserve, not far from Bama, where 55 people were killed in militant attacks last week.
Brig Gen Olukolade said the plane damaged by anti-aircraft fire had returned to base safely, while the “terrorist base” was subsequently “completely destroyed”.
This is the first time Boko Haram has been reported to have used such heavy weaponry against aircraft.
A Maiduguri resident told the BBC that the city was unusually quiet on Friday, with most people staying inside.
Brig Gen Olukolade said “several thousand” troops had been sent to the three north-eastern states to tackle Boko Haram.
The three semi-desert states, which border Niger, Chad and Cameroon, are roughly the size of England or the US state of Illinois but have a population of just 10 million.
The BBC’s Will Ross in Abuja says targeting Boko Haram’s rural bases or training camps should pose no great challenge for the military; the hardest part of this campaign will be in urban areas like Maiduguri, where the militants are living among the civilian population.
The president said the army would take “all necessary action” to “put an end to the impunity of insurgents and terrorists”, saying they had taken down the Nigerian flag and replaced it with a foreign emblem in some parts of the country.
Human rights organisations have criticised some of the Nigerian military’s previous operations because of the resulting civilian casualties.
Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language, is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state in the north.
Although they often attack Christians and government targets, they have also killed many Muslim civilians.