At least 30 Nigerian soldiers died in combat with Boko Haram militants who overran a military base in the northeast near the border with Niger, two military sources told AFP.
Scores of jihadists in trucks stormed the base at Zari village in northern Borno state late on Thursday, August 30 and briefly seized it after a fierce battle, they said.
“They came in large numbers in trucks and carrying heavy weapons and engaged soldiers in a battle that lasted for an hour,” a military officer said.
“We lost at least 30 men,” the officer said, adding that the attack took place at around 4:00 pm.
“They overwhelmed the troops who were forced to temporarily withdraw before reinforcements arrived,” said the officer who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak.
The militants took weapons and military equipment before they were pushed out of the base by troops with aerial support, another military source said, giving a similar death toll.
“We lost about 30 of our soldiers and about 10 were wounded,” a military source told Reuters, while another said said 20 to 30 had been killed in a surprise attack.
Update September 3 Military sources told AFP that the death toll had risen to 48.
“The casualty toll now stands at 48 with the recovery of 17 more bodies of soldiers in surrounding bushes in Zari by search and rescue teams,” a military source who did not want to be named told AFP. “Search operations are still ongoing and more bodies are likely to be recovered.”
Another military source confirmed the new death toll.
“So far (the) bodies of 48 troops have been recovered. Yesterday rescue teams found 17 bodies of fallen soldiers,” he said, adding that they included two officers and 46 soldiers.
“When the troops were overwhelmed by the terrorists they withdrew in different directions.”
The militants were pursued and bombarded by a fighter jet, said the military sources.
“The terrorists also suffered heavy casualty from the bombardment”, one of the military officers said.
Zari is 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the town of Damasak on the border with Niger.
Nigerian army silent on casualties
In a statement late Friday the Nigerian military confirmed troops fought Boko Haram “insurgents … on rampage to loot the community and extort money from villagers”.
“Troops … have successfully routed Boko Haram insurgents in an encounter that ensued yesterday evening at Zari village,” the military said in the statement.
It did not speak of military casualties and the raid on the base but maintained “several Boko Haram fighters and weapons” were destroyed in the fight.
The Nigerian army has on several occasions disputed reports on losses to Boko Haram and has in some cases played them down.
A string of Boko Haram attacks on military bases
Boko Haram has intensified its armed campaign in recent weeks, and has launched a number of major assaults on military bases in the remote northeast region, undermining repeated claims by the military that the jihadist group has been defeated.
It no longer controls swathes of territory in northeast Nigeria as it did at the height of its insurgency in 2014, yet Boko Haram militants still pose a threat to the region. The insurgency is in its ninth year and has left 20,000 people dead and displaced 2.6 million.
Boko Haram is divided into two factions that have competing goals and operational methods. One, led by Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi, largely focuses on attacking the military. It is affiliated to Islamic State and is apparently in talks with the Nigerian government. The other, led by Abubakar Shekau, is notorious for suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings of civilians.
In a short statement on Wednesday, Islamic State-affiliated Boko Haram jihadists claimed to have killed “several” Nigerian troops in mortar strikes on a military base in the town of Arge in the Lake Chad area.
The jihadists are thought to have attacked the base in Zari from nearby Garunda village, where 17 soldiers were killed in a Boko Haram attack on a military base on August 8, the sources said. Another 14 soldiers were injured in that attack.
On July 26, Boko Haram militants stormed a military base on the outskirts of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state.
On July 14 jihadists suspected to be from the Barnawi faction attacked overran a military base in Jilli village, in neighbouring Yobe state when dozens of troops were said to be been killed, wounded or missing. The army at the time conceded the base was attacked but said troops remobilised and succeeded in repelling the attackers.
Attacks have not been limited to military targets. On August 6, seven people were killed in a suspected Boko Haram dawn raid on Munduri village near Maiduguri. Several of those killed were beheaded and the entire village was burned. On August 3, five people were killed and the village of Gasarwa was razed in a similar raid near the garrison town of Monguno.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has insisted that the Islamists are a spent force as he gears up for elections next year. Months away from presidential polls, Buhari is under pressure to defend his track record as he battles insecurity across Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.
The government is now encouraging thousands of people displaced by the conflict to return to their homes from makeshift camps in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri. But international aid agencies working in the remote region say conditions are not right for mass returns, particularly in terms of security.
On Wednesday, August 29, Prime Minister Theresa May met Buhari in Abuja and the two signed a U.K.-Nigeria defense and security partnership agreement.
The U.K. is to “expand its provision of equipment and training for the Nigerian military” to help them protect themselves from improvised explosive devices, and has offered to train full army units before they deploy, giving the units “a shared understanding and experience that will make them better able to defeat the enemy.”
The U.K. already helps to train soldiers individually, but does not yet train fighting teams together. More than 30,000 Nigerian troops have been trained with British help since 2015.
With reporting from AFP