Nigerian troops are preparing to launch an offensive in a bid retake a strategic town attacked by Boko Haram jihadists in northeast Nigeria, security and civilian sources told AFP on Monday, December 31.
Fighters from the Islamic State West Africa Province faction of Boko Haram over-ran military bases near Baga on the shores of Lake Chad on Thursday.
Troops from the two bases – a Multinational Joint task Force post staffed by troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and a naval base – withdrew to another naval base at Fish Dam on the shores of Lake Chad. That base was later attacked by ISWA fighters.
The militants established full control over the fishing town on Friday after sacking the naval base, forcing personnel to flee across the lake to a village on the Chadian side of the border, sources told AFP.
The Nigerian military has insisted the insurgents have already been pushed out of Baga, and ISIS has not claimed ISWA fighters are in control of the town, but fleeing residents and security sources told AFP that Baga was still under Boko Haram control.
“Boko Haram are in charge of all the three military bases in Baga. There is not a single soldier in the area,” Baga resident Abubakar Mamman who fled to Maiduguri on Sunday told AFP.
“All the soldiers have fled and it is Boko Haram fighters everywhere,” he added.
The jihadists were said to be roaming around the town and killing civilian militiamen.
Mamman said the jihadists told residents they would not be harmed but people continued to leave on foot.
Nigeria military mobilizes in Monguno
Dozens of military trucks and armored vehicles from Borno state capital Maiduguri arrived late Sunday at the garrison town of Monguno, 135 km (84 miles) away, in readiness for the offensive, two military officers and militia sources told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“Military assets have been deployed to Monguno in preparation for an operation to recapture Baga from Boko Haram terrorists,” said the first military officer.
Monguno residents reported seeing 40 military trucks carrying troops on Sunday evening.
“It is a marching order from the highest quarters to troops to get Baga back from Boko Haram terrorists who are now occupying the town,” a second military source said.
“The offensive will start anytime soon,” he added.
“Troops are dominating the road with aggressive patrols, while clearance operations to flush out Boko Haram terrorists are ongoing in Baga general area,” Nigerian Army Colonel Onyema Nwachukwu said in a statement published on Facebook.
Nwachukwu also refuted claims that the Maiduguri to Monguno had been closed to motorists and other road users.
A militia force fighting alongside the military has also been called in to help retake Baga, said a militiaman in Monguno.
In January 2015, Boko Haram overran the MNJTF base and took control of Baga, killing hundreds of residents and forcing thousands to flee to Maiduguri. The town was later retaken, but jihadists continue to attack the military and civilians in the area, which is an ISWA stronghold.
Its fighters occupy camps on many islands in Lake Chad.
ISWA attacks other military bases
With the capture of Baga the jihadists control most areas around Lake Chad, security sources said.
ISWA fighters had in recent days seized military locations in Cross-Kauwa, Kukawa, Kekeno and Bunduram villages, the security and civilian sources said.
On Saturday and Sunday the militants made three unsuccessful attempts to overrun Monguno.
“They [Boko Haram] suffered heavy losses in Monguno where troops deal them a huge blow,” said the first military source in an account supported by a militiaman in Monguno.
ISIS on Sunday claimed that ISWA fighters killed two soldiers in an attack on Monguno.
Surge in Boko Haram attacks
Boko Haram split into two factions in mid-2016 over ideological differences. One is led by Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi and largely focuses on attacking military and government targets, while the other, led by Abubakar Shekau, is notorious for suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings of civilians.
Shekau has pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, but ISIS central gave its formal backing to the Barnawi faction, which is known as Islamic State West Africa Province.
ISWA has lately intensified its armed campaign, launching a number of major assaults on military targets in Borno and neighboring Yobe state amid signs of a takeover by more hardline leaders.
There have been dozens of attacks on military bases since July. Most of the attacks have been blamed on ISWA, or claimed by ISIS as ISWA attacks, but there has been an upsurge in attacks by both factions in recent weeks.
The Lake Chad area around Baga has seen a number of attacks attributed to ISWA in recent weeks.
On December 17, Boko Haram militants killed one soldier and injured another when they briefly seized a military base in Mairari village close to the garrison town of Monguno, around 52 km (32 miles) from Baga.
On December 14, ISWA fighters attacked a military base in Gudumbali, around 70 km (44 miles) from Baga. The Nigerian army said one solder was killed, and ISIS claimed ISWAP fighters killed five troops, while other reports said a dozen or more died. Ten days earlier, ISWA fighters launched an assault on a military base in Gudumbali, sparking a fierce firefight in which two soldiers were injured.
ISWA fighters attacked a military base in Mallam Fatori, around 82 km (51 miles) from Baga on December 3. At least one soldier was killed and several others were injured in the attack.
Also on December 1, ISIS claimed ISWA killed eight Nigerian soldiers and wounded 17 others in an attack near Gamboru, around 90 km (56 miles) from Baga. The Nigerian Army said that it captured weapons and stores during “offensive patrols” in the area, but did not mention army casualties. On December 14, the Shekau faction of Boko Haram was blamed when Nigerian soldiers were killed in roadside bomb blast near Gamboru.
On November 30, ISWA fighters attacked a military base in Arege village near Baga, killing at least on soldier and injuring at least seven others. The same base came under attack two days earlier, but the militants failed to overrun it.
Two days earlier, three soldiers were killed in attack on a military base in Cross-Kauwa, around 24 km (15 miles) from Baga.
The military on November 30 lashed out at the media, saying some media outlets were “creating erroneous impression of the Nigerian Army through inaccurate and false publication of casualty figures.”
The military has even threatened legal action against organizations publishing unofficial figures.
Borno and Yobe states, along with nearby Adamawa state, have born the brunt of nine years of jihadist violence that has claimed 27,000 lives and forced 1.8 million people to flee their homes. The conflict has also spilled over into Nigeria’s northern neighbors Chad, Niger and Cameroon.
The recent surge in Boko Haram attacks has increased pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected in 2015 on a promise to defeat the Islamists and has repeatedly said they are virtually defeated. His administration wants to show it is winning the fight against Boko Haram ahead of a presidential election in February at which he will seek a second term in office.
With reporting from AFP