All five crew members aboard a Nigerian Air Force Mi-35 helicopter gunship were killed when the aircraft crashed near Damasak in northern Nigeria on Wednesday, the air force said.
The crash came as Islamic State claimed attacks on the military in Damasak and bases in nearby Yobe State.
The Russia-built Mi-35M attack helicopter was “providing close air support to troops of 145 Battalion, Damasak in Borno State,” Air Commodore Ibikunle Daramola said in a Thursday, January 3 statement.
The remains of the crew – Flight Lieutenant Perowei Jacob, Flight Lieutenant Kaltho Paul Kilyofas, Sergeant Auwal Ibrahim, Lance Corporal Adamu Nura and Aircraftman Meshack Ishmael – were brought to Maiduguri.
The aircraft was lost during “ongoing counterinsurgency operations,” Daramola said in a Wednesday statement on Twitter, adding the crash occurred around 7:45 p.m. but that the cause of the downing was unknown.
It is unclear what the specific mission was, but the area has come under attack in recent months.
On September 25, Nigerian troops repelled a Boko Haram attack in Gashigar in Borno State around 43 km (23 miles) northeast of Damasak.
Seven Nigerian soldiers were injured in a Boko Haram attack on a military base in Damasak two weeks earlier. After about four hours of fighting the militants forced to withdraw after a fighter jet bombarded their positions.
Mi-35 attack helicopters
Nigeria ordered six Mi-35M helicopters in August 2014. Two were delivered in December 2016, and two in April 2018.
The Mil Mi-35 is part of the Mi-24 family of attack helicopters (NATO reporting name: Hind). The Mi-35M variant which has been produced since 2005 is an upgraded Mi-24V and includes modern avionics and night vision systems. It can transport up to eight soldiers with equipment or up to 1,500 kg of cargo internally. Its external sling has a 2,400 kg capacity capacity to 2,400 kg.
The chin-mounted turret can carry a twin-barrel GSh-23V 23mm cannon, while various weapons including anti-tank missiles, rocket and gun pods can be carried on the wings.
ISIS claims ISWA attacks in Yobe state
Damask in Borno State is near the border with Niger and lies close to Yobe state.
In a Thursday statement, Islamic State claimed that fighters from its West Africa province affiliate clashed with the Nigerian Army at a base in Damasak the previous day, killing and wounding several soldiers.
A day earlier, ISIS claimed attacks on bases in two towns in Yobe state.
It said a Tuesday attack by ISWA fighters on a military base in Sabon Gari killed three soldiers and injured others, and four Nigerian soldiers were killed in an attack on a base in Buni Gari.
Via its propaganda agency Amaq, ISIS later claimed the Yobe attacks had killed 140 Nigerian Armed Forces members and wounded others.
Joint operations against militant attacks in the region
Joint operations between Niger and Nigeria are ongoing in the region.
An NAF Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance platform was also deployed, along with another from the Nigerien Air Force.
On Wednesday, Niger’s defense ministry said the army had killed more than 280 militants near the border with Nigeria in days of ground and air raids.
The operations were carried out on the islands of Lake Chad and along the Komadougou Yobe river which serves as a natural border between Niger and Nigeria. Damasak lies at the confluence of the Yobe and Komadougu Gana rivers.
On December 30, five Nigerien and five Nigerian troops were killed in a joint operation against “bandits” in the neighboring Maradi region of Niger, Defense Minister Kalla Moutari said.
Nigerien officials often call Islamist militants “bandits” but a security source said the joint operation targeted criminal gangs that plague the Niger-Nigeria border, holing up in dense forests.
Nigerian Air Force strikes near Baga
On Tuesday, the Nigerian Air Force tweeted a video of January 1 airstrikes near Baga, further west in Borno state near Lake Chad.
It said that a “building being used as meeting venue by Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) fighters” was destroyed.
That strike followed another on December 29, in which the air force said an Alpha Jet “neutralized several Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) fighters at their hideout” around Fish Dam near Baga.
The Lake Chad area around Baga has seen a number of attacks attributed to ISWA in recent weeks.
Last week, fighters from the ISWA faction of Boko Haram overran military bases near Baga on the shores of Lake Chad in Nigeria. 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, prompting a Nigerian army offensive earlier this week.
ISWA fighters also attacked nearby military locations in Cross-Kauwa, Kukawa, Kekeno and Bunduram villages, security and civilian sources told AFP, and made three unsuccessful attempts to overrun 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 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 military on November 30 lashed out at the media, saying some 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.