Hundreds of civilians are fleeing Nigeria’s north-eastern city of Maiduguri, Borno State after Islamist Boko Haram militants stormed nearby towns with guns blazing aboard trucks mounted with heavy machine guns.
Heavily armed militants using captured military vehicles and weapons have taken towns and villages to the north, east and south of the Borno State capital in the last few weeks and days in an apparent strategy to encircle the city and hold territory.
Apprehension among Maiduguri residents grew after fierce fighting between Nigeria’s military and attacking Boko Haram fighters over the town of Bama, 70 kilometres south-east of Maiduguri.
The militants, whose leader Abubakar Shekau last month declared a “Muslim territory” in the north-east after capturing the town of Gwoza on the Cameroon border, is believed to be trying to mimic the example of the Islamic State, which announced the creation of a separate caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
“They are creating territory for themselves … they have seen what IS have done, so they are trying to imitate them,” said Musa Sumail, a human rights activist in Maiduguri, who reports on the violence in the north-east.
Travellers packed bus stations in Maiduguri seeking transport westwards towards the neighbouring Yobe State, the only safe exit route out, while vehicles laden with passengers and possessions also crowded the road.
“I’m leaving now because people keep saying Boko Haram may attack Maiduguri anytime and it is possible,” said Saka Lawal, a car mechanic who was leaving with his wife and two children.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s government and the armed forces have faced mounting public criticism of their apparent inability to check Boko Haram’s five-year insurgency, which has ravaged the poor north-east corner of Africa’s biggest economy.
US concern over escalating violence
Boko Haram’s intensifying attacks in the sub-Saharan Africa’s number one oil producing region, which counts the United States among its crude export markets, was a serious threat to the country’s security, the top US diplomat for Africa said on Thursday.
“We are very troubled by the apparent capture of Bama and the prospects for an attack on Maiduguri, which would impose a tremendous toll on the civilian population,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a bilateral security meeting.
Nigeria’s oilfields on its southern coast have not been affected by the Boko Haram attacks so far.
Popular anger spiked after the fundamentalist group abducted more than 200 teenage schoolgirls in mid-April, triggering a global social media campaign.
The Sunni movement, whose name means “western education is forbidden”, has killed thousands since launching an uprising in 2009 to establish an Islamic state.
It has claimed shootings and bombings across the north and, more sporadically, in the federal capital Abuja and even in the southern coastal commercial hub of Lagos.
Counterterrorism experts said links exist between Boko Haram and other Islamist movements, such as Al Qaeda’s North African franchise and Somalia’s Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabaab, but there has been little evidence so far of extensive cooperation.
The United States, Britain, France and Israel have been providing intelligence and training support to Nigeria’s armed forces, but this cooperation has been hampered by persistent allegations of rights abuses levelled against the military.
Rights groups have accused the military of executing and torturing suspects, and killings civilians, charges it denies.