ABUJA, (Reuters) - Nigeria’s military beat back an attack by Islamist insurgents outside the Borno state capital Maiduguri on Friday and sent in reinforcements to stop any assault on the northeastern city, the government said.
Authorities were struggling to reassure frightened locals that the armed forces would defend them against the Boko Haram militants, who have overrun a string of towns and villages in the area in recent weeks.
Maiduguri residents said they heard gunfire and explosions coming from the direction of Konduga, 35 km (20 miles) southeast of the city, on Friday, and later saw army troop carriers heading there.
“The attackers were repelled ... there were casualties on their side,” government spokesman Mike Omeri told Reuters.
A Nigerian military source, who asked not to be named, said the militants had arrived in a convoy of pickup trucks and motorbikes but suffered “dozens” of casualties when the army confronted them. No independent confirmation of the fighting or casualties was immediately available.
“Some people came from Konduga ... they told us the army are in control,” Musa Sumail, a human rights activist in Maiduguri, told Reuters by phone from the city.
Omeri said Nigerian government forces were also in control of Bama, a town some 35 km (20 miles) further down the road from Konduga which saw fierce fighting last week. Reinforcements were being sent up to Konduga and surrounding areas, he added.
Sumail said military helicopters were flying over the Borno state capital, which has filled up with tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Boko Haram forces advancing from the north, east and south of Maiduguri in the past few weeks. Thousands more have fled Maiduguri westwards towards Damaturu for safety.
Some local civic organizations have warned that Maiduguri, where Boko Haram has concentrated its attacks since it launched its anti-government insurgency in 2009, is surrounded by the militants and vulnerable to attack.
Nigeria’s defense headquarters, which avoids giving detailed accounts of military operations, criticized such reports as “alarmist” in a statement on its Twitter account @DefenceInfoNG.
“All facets of security arrangements for the defense of Maiduguri has been upgraded to handle any planned attack,” the military said, without giving any specifics.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration and the armed forces face mounting criticism that they are failing in the war to counter Boko Haram. The group’s leader Abubakar Shekau proclaimed a “Muslim territory” in the northeast after seizing Gwoza near the border with Cameroon, to the east, last month.
“We are convinced that the Federal Government of Nigeria has not shown sufficient political will to fight Boko Haram and rescue us from the clutches of the insurgents which may ultimately lead to the total annihilation of the inhabitants of Borno,” the Borno Elders Forum, which groups dignitaries and elders from the northeast state, said in a statement.
It urged the government to “fortify” Maiduguri.
Boko Haram’s Shekau is apparently trying to follow the example of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has declared its own caliphate. This strategy, which has seen Boko Haram hoist its flag over local government buildings in several towns and villages, departs from its usual hit-and-run tactics.
U.S.-based consultancy Stratfor said that while Boko Haram - which is most active in the northeast, far from the central federal capital Abuja and southwestern commercial hub of Lagos - did not pose an “existential threat” to the Nigerian government, the loss of a city like Maiduguri would embarrass Jonathan and damage his expected re-election bid in February’s national vote.
“If the government proved unable to prevent such an event, it could harm Jonathan’s bid for re-election by painting him as an irresponsibly weak commander-in-chief ahead of the presidential primaries in November and national elections in February,” Stratfor said in a note.
Many believe pre-election political tension stemming from the historic rivalry between Nigeria’s mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south - Jonathan is a southerner - is also stoking the persistent Boko Haram insurgency in the northeast.
Popular anger spiked after Boko Haram abducted more than 200 northeast schoolgirls from Chibok in mid-April, triggering a social media campaign that gave global prominence to the group.
In addition to the threat to Maiduguri in Borno state, other Boko Haram columns have pushed southwards since early last week into the north of neighboring Adamawa state, killing civilians, burning Christian churches and government offices, and forcing thousands of civilians to flee before them.
The Nigerian military says it has been striking back, using warplanes to support its ground troops in the fighting around the commercial town of Mubi. Omeri said army reinforcements had also been sent to Adamawa state.
Groups critical of Jonathan say they do not see the military making progress. “Our armed forces are not sufficiently armed or motivated to fight the terrorists. The result is that the rampaging insurgents are conquering more and more of Nigerian territory,” said the #BringBackOurGirls movement, which is campaigning for the rescue of the abducted Chibok students.
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Lagos and Lanre Ola in the northeast; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Alison Williams