More than 2,000 Nigerian troops have begun an offensive to retake territory seized by Islamist insurgents in the remote northeast, some of them raiding camps in a game reserve, a military source told AFP Thursday.
The military has launched a sweeping operation to flush out fighters from Boko Haram, a radical group which says it wants to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
The offensive follows an admission by President Goodluck Jonathan that Boko Haram had “taken over” parts of the northeast and declared war against the Nigerian government, prompting him to impose emergency measures in three states.
A military source who requested anonymity told AFP that operations had started in at least one area of Borno state, the epicenter of the insurgency.
“Our men raided some terrorist camps in the Sambisa Game Reserve,” in northern Borno, early on Wednesday, he said. In January, the military stormed Boko Haram training facilities in the same area.
The source added that 2,000 troops had been deployed to Borno but declined to comment on the number of forces sent to the two other affected states, Yobe and Adamawa.
Army spokesman Brigadier General Ibrahim Attahiru refused to discuss figures.
Residents in all three states have reported seeing an increased number of military personnel.
Zangina Kyarimi, who lives in the remote town of Marti in northern Borno towards the border with Chad, told AFP that “large military teams” arrived late Wednesday.
“I saw dozens of military vans and trucks accompanied by tanks,” he said by phone from the town which is considered a Boko Haram stronghold.
‘We are afraid’
“We are afraid of what might happen in the coming days. We are thinking of leaving.
The security forces on Thursday told banks to close in the town of Gashua in Yobe state, where suspected Boko Haram fighters attacked the police and a series of buildings on April 26, resident Musa Saminu said.
“Around 30 military vans passed through the town...They were heavily armed. Some of them went to the banks and asked them to close down as a precaution,” he told AFP.
Red Cross spokesman Nwakpa O. Nwakpa said the organization was prepared to offer relief to civilians impacted by the military operation.
Nigeria’s security forces have been accused of massive rights abuses in campaigns against Boko Haram, which may have amounted to crimes against humanity, according to Human Rights Watch.
The US State Department on Wednesday warned that any “heavy-handed” tactics or disregard for human rights during the emergency operations could damage bilateral relations.
While the military has vowed that the operation will “rid the nation's border territories of terrorist bases,” there are questions as to whether enhanced force can end the insurgency.
The northeastern borders with Cameroon, Chad and Niger are porous, with criminal groups and weapons moving freely between countries.
Boko Haram entrenched itself in the expansive region due to a relatively modest military presence and despite the boosted number of troops some analysts believe the Islamists will be able to spread out and find safe havens.
Boko Haram has carried out scores of attacks across northern and central Nigeria since 2010, but experts say that in recent months the Islamists have become better armed and better funded.
The group is believed to be led by Abubakar Shekau, declared a global terrorist by the United States, but the extent of his control is unclear.
Shekau has rejected any form of negotiation with Nigeria’s government.
The Boko Haram conflict is estimated to have cost 3,600 lives since 2010, including killings by the security forces.