Nigerian troops were back in a strategic town on the shores of Lake Chad, military and civilian sources said Thursday, January 10, after Boko Haram attacks forced tens of thousands to flee.
Fighters from the Islamic State West Africa Province of Boko Haram overran a naval base and another housing troops from a regional force in and around Baga late last month.
The United Nations has said more than 30,000 people had since sought refuge in the garrison town of Monguno and the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, as the military prepared to conduct operations in the area.
A military officer in Maiduguri said: “Our soldiers entered Baga yesterday evening [Wednesday]. They are in total control of the town and the terrorists had fled.
“They entered the town at about 7 p.m. [1800 GMT] after taking control of Kuros-Kauwa, which is 15 km [nearly 10 miles] from the town,” he told AFP.
The development was confirmed by a resident, who like the officer asked not to be identified for security reasons.
“I left Baga at about 5:30 p.m. and I met a huge military convoy heading to the town from Kuros-Kauwa,” said the local man.
“They entered Baga unchallenged. Boko Haram fighters had not been staying the night in Baga since they learnt soldiers were preparing to launch a massive attack.”
Some buildings, including the homes of local politicians, chiefs and community leaders, were burnt down in Baga and neighboring Doron Baga.
A hospital, clinic and schools were razed, as was the naval base in Fish Dam, he added.
Brigadier General Sani Kukasheka Usman, Director of Army public relations later said in a statement published on Facebook that troops of the newly formed Nigerian Army Special Forces Command “dealt the decisive blow that neutralised several terrorists” in Baga.
“Unfortunately, in the process, the Special Forces lost one officer and a soldier, while 5 other soldiers sustained injuries,” Usman said.
He said that troops were “consolidating and clearing vestiges of the terrorists” in Borno state, with “special emphasis on the Lake Chad region.”
Usman said that special forces had begun clearance operations on December 28. Troops cleared Zare, Gudumbali, Kukawa without any resistance, but at Cross Kauwa, soldiers neutralised insurgents and captured some equipment.
An infiltration attempt at Monguno was also prevented, with “many” militants neutralised and arms and ammunition recovered, Usman added, without elaborating.
Baga and Doron Baga have been attacked repeatedly since Boko Haram insurgency began in 2009. Overall more than 27,000 people have been killed and 1.8 million others are still homeless.
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.
Hundreds of people, if not more, were killed in an attack on Baga and Doron Baga that began on January 3, 2015 that was feared to have been the worst attack in the nearly 10-year conflict.
Security has improved since then as a result of a sustained counter-insurgency but in recent months there have been indications of a resurgence.
On Wednesday, ISWA attacked military positions near Bulabulin village in the Konduga area of Borno, and nearby Delwa but were pushed back, sources said.
Soldiers on Sunday raided the Daily Trust offices in Maiduguri, arresting two reporters and seizing equipment after it reported on pending operations to retake Baga.
Brigadier General Sani Kukasheka Usman, Director of Army public relations, said the report “divulged classified military information, thus undermining national security” and alleged it gave insurgents “early warning” and as a result “sabotaged the planned operations… putting the lives of troops in imminent and clear danger.”
Usman, who has previously threatened the media with legal action for publishing unofficial information on the violence, said the action was conducted in good faith.
On Thursday, the army said Boko Haram fighters had told residents to leave their homes in villages near Maiduguri.
Civilian militia said earlier this week Boko Haram told people in Jakana and Mainok to flee as they were going to launch a major attack.
There was no indication they had done so but on Wednesday troops stepped up stop and search operations on the main road that passes through both locations.
Army spokesperson Onyema Nwachukwu described the latest threats as “psychological war” and urged residents to report suspicious activity.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said in December 2015 that Boko Haram were “technically defeated” after a sustained counter-insurgency.
But on Wednesday he acknowledged setbacks in the fight-back, including “battle fatigue” among soldiers from a wave of guerrilla style hit-and-run tactics and suicide bombings.
Buhari was elected in 2015 on a promise to end the conflict and security has again become an election issue as he seeks a second term of office at polls next month.
With reporting from AFP. This post was updated to include the army statement.