Nigeria’s military on Saturday imposed a 24-hour curfew in parts of a northeastern city as soldiers pressed on with a campaign against Boko Haram Islamists that has sent people fleeing from their homes.
Nigeria launched the sweeping operation against Boko Haram this week, deploying several thousand troops across three states where President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency after the Islamists seized territory and chased out the government.
The group, which has said it is fighting to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, has carried out scores of attacks in recent years, and has become emboldened and better armed in recent months.
In the city of Maiduguri, the Borno state capital and Boko Haram’s traditional home base, a “24-hour curfew” was imposed in 12 neighborhoods, military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa said in a statement.
In a separate release, the military claimed the killing of “10 suspected terrorists” in one Maiduguri neighborhood and arrested 65 others who were trying to enter the city after fleeing aerial bombardments elsewhere.
The military said dozens of insurgents have been killed in the offensive targeting all three states put under emergency decree, including Adamawa and Yobe, but Borno is expected to see the most bloodshed.
Residents have begun escaping from a remote insurgent stronghold in Borno near the border with Cameroon after military fighter jets and helicopters carried out air strikes on Islamist camps.
In the Marte district, some people were fleeing east towards a town on the border 42 kilometers away.
“It has been scary in the past three days,” said Buba Yawuri, whose home is in the town of Kwalaram in Marte but who has fled to the border town Gomboru Ngala.
“Fighter jets and helicopters kept hovering in the sky and we kept hearing huge explosions from afar,” he told AFP.
He said that as the air assaults began, the security forces told all residents to stay indoors, cutting off his family’s access to food and water.
“I couldn’t hold on any longer. I took the bush path” and reached Gomboru Ngala early Saturday, he said.
Shafi’u Breima, a resident of Gomboru Ngala, told AFP that the border town is receiving a continuous flow of people arriving from Marte and neighboring areas.
The phone network in Borno state has all but collapsed since the emergency measures were imposed but residents in Gomboru Ngala use phone services from Cameroon and have been sporadically reachable.
The remote, thinly populated region has porous borders where criminal groups and weapons have flowed freely for years.
The military has sealed previously unguarded crossings to block Boko Haram fighters from fleeing during the offensive.
The military campaign could prove to be the biggest ever against Boko Haram and is believed to be the first time Nigeria has carried out air strikes within its own territory in more than 25 years.
Aerial support was believed to have been used against rioters in the north in the early 1980s.
Many have warned that there is a risk of high civilian deaths and Nigeria’s military has been accused of massive rights violations in the past, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Friday that he was “deeply concerned about the fighting in northeastern Nigeria” and urged the security forces to “apply disciplined use of force in all operations.”
There are also doubts as to whether the insurgency can be crushed by force, amid concern that the militants will scatter and re-emerge when the offensive eases.
Nigeria has been urged by various camps to tackle the root social causes of the conflict, including acute poverty and excessive government corruption which has helped radicalize many young Muslims in the north.
The conflict is estimated to have cost 3,600 lives since 2009, including killings by the security forces.
Nigeria imposes curfew in campaign against Islamists