Nigeria’s military on Saturday imposed a 24-hour curfew in parts of a northeastern city as soldiers pressed on with a campaign against Islamist group Boko Haram that has sent people fleeing from their homes.
Nigeria launched the sweeping operation last week, deploying thousands of troops across three states where Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared a state of emergency after the Islamists seized territory and chased out the government.
The group, which has said it wants to create an Islamic state in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north, has carried out scores of attacks since 2010 and has become emboldened and better armed in recent months.
In the city of Maiduguri, Borno State’s capital and Boko Haram’s traditional home base, a “24-hour curfew” was imposed in 12 neighborhoods, Nigerina military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Sagir Musa said in a statement.
In a separate release, the military claimed the killing of “10 suspected terrorists” in a Maiduguri neighborhood and arrested 65 others who were trying to enter the city after fleeing aerial bombardments elsewhere. The military said dozens of insurgents had 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 Nigerian military fighter jets and helicopters carried out air strikes on Islamist camps.
In Marte District, some people were fleeing east toward Gomboru Ngala, a town on the border about 40km away.
“It has been scary in the past three days,” said Buba Yawuri, whose home is in Marte, but who has fled to Gomboru Ngala. “Fighter jets and helicopters kept hovering in the sky and we kept hearing huge explosions from afar.”
He said that as the air assaults began, Nigerian 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 fled to Gomboru Ngala, he said.
A teacher who arrived in Gomboru Ngala on Saturday said he fled his village in Marte because he feared how the Islamist fighters might respond to the air strikes.
“I don’t want them to vent their anger on me,” Babakura Kachalla told reporters. “I am a known school teacher and I know how much Boko Haram hates people like me,” a reference to the Islamist group’s name, which means “Western education is a sin.”
The telephone network in Borno 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 yet 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.
US Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday said he was “deeply concerned about the fighting in northeastern Nigeria.”
There are also doubts as to whether the insurgency can be crushed by force.
Nigeria has been urged by various camps to tackle the root causes of the conflict, including poverty and corruption, which have helped radicalize Muslims in the north.